If you have a complaint about any aspect of your landlord’s performance, there are a number of options for seeking redress.
The actions are not mutually exclusive, but don’t always overlap. We advise starting with a complaint to your landlord, as most organisations expect this to have been the first step.
As a rule, the Ombudsman will not take up an issue if it is being dealt with in court at the time. The Regulator will not generally investigate a complaint if an identical complaint has been sent to the Ombudsman, but will wait to see the Ombudsman’s report before proceeding. Where such restrictions apply, we have highlighted them below. It is therefore worth mapping out in advance the order in which approaches to the various bodies will be made.
Landlord Complaints Process
It is important to tell your landlord when there is a problem that they need to address, so this should be the starting point. It can be done by letter, email, or through the landlord’s website. There is usually a two or three step process. If you are not satisfied with the first response, you can appeal and move to the next stage. Our guide to help with making a complaint can be found here.
For issues such as service charges, repairs inside the home, and ASB, it is clear that these are the responsibility of the landlord. For problems outside the home, such as a boundary wall, it is worth checking your tenancy agreement to see whether the landlord has responsibility for it.
Landlords do not charge for you to make a complaint.
This is not an impartial process. The landlord is judging themselves, so bias is built in to the system.
Landlords can drag out their complaint handling, so that tenants are left to continually chase them for updates.
Sometimes you need to ask for information from the landlord before you can make a complaint, and they don’t always provide the information needed, for example a breakdown of service charges if you want to challenge a steep rise.
Complaints can get lost so it may take a few attempts to get recognition that there is a problem.
Some landlords also automatically ‘close’ a complaint and mark it as resolved after a set amount of time, even if it has not been resolved.
Sometimes, a landlord agrees that they have failed, but they will not necessarily agree to provide the remedy you want.
Compensation is often capped at a very low (and often apparently random) amount. Compensation may not take account of the time or money you have had to spend on dealing with the problem.
The Housing Ombudsman
The Housing Ombudsman Service was set up by government to review complaints about any landlord registered with them. There is no charge for making a complaint. The Ombudsman can be found here.
It does not recognise leaseholders as having a landlord-tenant relationship, and will not therefore consider a complaint from a leaseholder.
Some types of complaint will not be considered by the Ombudsman. It rules out any that are made prior to having exhausted the landlord’s complaints procedure. This can be problematic when the landlord doesn’t engage with you, and the process therefore stalls. It can effectively block any attempt to take a complaint to the Ombudsman.
The Ombudsman will also not consider complaints about levels of service charges where either party has started legal action, or a complaint where the landlord’s time limits were not complied with.
There is no charge for submitting a complaint to the Ombudsman. However, there is a long backlog of cases, and it is currently around 18 months to get it assigned to an investigator.
The reports to SHAC are that the process favours landlords, and that the landlord’s word is accepted without enough investigation or request for evidence.
When the Ombudsman upholds a complaint, it can order the landlord to apologise, pay compensation, or take some action to put right the problem. However, the compensation tends to be small, especially given the multi-million pound turnover of housing associations.
Some housing associations will ignore the findings of the Ombudsman, even if the complaint is upheld.
Housing associations have also been known to tell the Ombudsman that they have complied with an order when they haven’t, so this may not be the end of the road.
The Tribunal Service
This is a court specialising in housing issues. Its full name is the First-Tier Tribunal (Property Chamber – Residential Property). More details can be found here.
The court recognises both tenants and leaseholders, and will address complaints about rent increases, leasehold disputes, failure to recognise a tenants’ association, management disputes, and other issues.
You may have to pay a fee when you make an application to the court. The costs vary according to the type of case being brought.
The Tribunal is part of the court system, and the landlord’s response will certainly be managed by its own solicitors and barristers. Tenants are disadvantaged unless they have their own lawyers, but the cost of getting legal representation can be very high. The final cost will not be known at the start because it depends on how much work is needed during the process.
A further consideration is that the landlord could threaten to apply to the court to recover the costs of defending itself from the tenant (for example to get the tenant to pay the landlord’s legal fees if the tenant loses). It does not automatically mean that the court would agree that the tenant must pay, but it is a consideration, and often has the effect of intimidating tenants.
The courts can order the landlord to pay compensation, and can order other remedial action by the landlord.
As with the Ombudsman, housing associations have been known to ignore court orders, preferring to pay what is often a relatively small fine for doing so.
Or they may lie to the courts and tell them that they have paid the compensation or carried out some other remedy when they have not.
In either case, you would need to re-apply to the court to challenge the landlord’s failure to comply with a court order. Just because a court upholds your complaint, it does not necessarily mean that this will be the end of the process.
The Regulator of Social Housing
The Regulator of Social Housing (RSH) is a government body tasked with making sure that housing associations are well-managed and financially stable, and that tenants get quality accommodation, have choice and protection, and can hold their landlords to account. The RSH can be found here.
There is no charge for submitting a complaint to the Regulator.
Many tenants complain to SHAC that the RSH is failing in its obligations to them. The RSH is an instrument of government, and government is certainly far more concerned with housing association finances, and their ability to develop new housing, than the standard of service delivered to the people they house.
The RSH grades housing associations on their financial viability and governance only. There is no longer any grading for how well the association performs on management or tenant engagement.
As with the Ombudsman, it does not recognise leaseholders as having a landlord-tenant relationship, and will not therefore consider most types of complaint from a leaseholder. Check the website first to see whether your complaint comes within the RSH’s remit.
For an issue to be taken up, the tenant has to show that their landlord has breached one of the ‘Regulatory Standards’, or that the association’s actions potentially or actually gave rise to ‘serious harm’. The test for serious harm is set extremely high.
If you have submitted an identical complaint to the Ombudsman, the RSH will usually let that run its course before investigating the matter.
The process can take a long time as the RSH gathers evidence, including approaching the landlord.
Many tenants who approach SHAC after being through the RSH’s processes have reported that the landlord’s word is too easily accepted although the landlord would not have been able to substantiate their claims.
The RSH is very limited in how it can help tenants directly. It cannot order a landlord to take remedial action in the way that the Ombudsman or Tribunal can. Nor can it order the landlord to pay compensation to a tenant.
The RSH’s main penalty is to downgrade the association’s governance rating – a very rare event. In August 2021, for example, Hyde, Clarion, and L&Q were all rated at the top governance level (G1) despite recent media exposure of terrible housing standards.
A governance rating downgrade, especially if it is only to the ‘G2’ level, does not in itself have major consequences for the landlord. It acts as a signal that the landlord has problems in the way that it is run, and this may concern funders who in turn may apply pressure on the housing association to improve. It is a very indirect form of action.
If a landlord is downgraded below ‘G2’, this is more serious, and a vanishingly rare event. In the few cases where it happens, this triggers closer involvement by the Regulator.
MPs and Local Councillors
One option is to write to your MP (Member of Parliament), or your councillors. You can ask them to contact your landlord about the complaint you have raised.
MPs and councillors are able to interevene on your behalf on any issue relating to your landlord.
You can contact them by email or phone, or, once lockdown restrictions have ended, through their in-person surgeries.
There is no charge for the intervention of your MP or councillors. They are your elected representatives and have a duty to represent you.
MPs and councillors cannot order a landlord to take any action to address your complaint. Because of their status, they might just be more likely to get a response from the landlord.
SHAC has found that increasingly, the larger landlords ignore contact from politicians as readily as they ignore contact from tenants. This is based on reports made to us from politicians frustrated at the lack of response from housing associations in their constituency.
Local councillors, and sometimes MPs, have influence over the development that happens within their constituency. Councils also award contracts for services, such as homelessness services to be provided on their behalf. These can be a lucrative source of income for a housing association.
Councillors in particular could therefore use their power to refuse contracts for new buildings or council services to landlords who do not properly engage when things go wrong. We have not yet found many who are willing to use their influence in this way.
All of the actions outlined are problematic and share features in common. They are bureaucratic. They use processes and jargon that make it hard for those who do not work in housing to understand. They rely on a reasonable level of written and spoken English to navigate. They require the tenant to take time out from other activities so that they can make the a complaint and then continue chasing the organisation for a response. This is hard on those with a lot of other commitments in their lives. They are also slow moving processes. This is a problem when your issue is serious and causing immediate harm as well as life-changing levels of stress.
A Closed World
The processes are also under the control of a group of people who are often closely connected. The chief executives of Clarion, One Housing Group, Paradigm, St Mungos, and Onward Homes for example all worked at the Regulator or one of its predecessor organisations.
The ex-Minister for Housing, Gavin Barwell, sits on the board of Clarion. Bob Kerslake was a senior civil servant before becoming Chair of the Board at Peabody. One Housing’s HR Director previously worked at Clarion. Many of those who served on the boards of the Ombudsman and Regulator previously held leading positions at housing associations. Housing associations use the same sub-contractors to carry out repairs, maintenance, and other types of work.
The people at the top of housing associations are very closely connected, both professionally and socially. What this means for tenants trying to make a complaint is that they are challenging those within a tightly-knit network and cannot rely on the process to be fair and impartial.
For options that do not rely on the closed shop of housing association executives, tenants must act collectively and use their own powers. These approaches can include getting together with others by forming a group, or becoming a Tenant and Residents Association.
Using social media and contacting the press can put pressure on the landlord by damaging their reputation. The larger associations can be less concerned about this approach, but it can work with smaller landlords. For advice and guidance, see here.
Withholding payment of rents and service charges is the most powerful tactic and works alongside campaigning approaches.
Tenants are sometimes concerned that using this tactic can risk their tenancy, but none of those organised through SHAC have experienced any loss as a result. There are also actions that could be taken if this threat was made, and plenty of time to act.
A rent or service charge strike can be quick and effective and not as risky as some fear. For more details see here.