The Victorian Ombudsman has tabled a Report into unreasonable costs for damages and maintenance charged to public tenants.
Over 5,000 Victorian families vacate public housing properties each year, and many of them are saddled with massive maintenance bills for matters that are not their responsibility.
The Tenants Union of Victoria, community legal centres, Justice Connect, Legal Aid and the Victorian Public Tenants Association all assisted the Ombudsman, providing numerous real life examples of tenants who had been overcharged.
For many former tenants, the debt means it is impossible for them to get back into public housing. Many have also had problems with debt collectors.
The Victorian Ombudsman launched an ‘Own Motion’ investigation last year. Today she tabled 18 recommendations, all of which have been accepted by the Office of Housing.
The main thrust of the report is that issues between the tenant and the Government should be able to be resolved efficiently and amicably, without the need for litigation.
In recent years, the Office of Housing has essentially outsourced their decision making to VCAT. Between 2013–14 and 2015–16 the Office of Housing was the largest individual litigant of residential tenancy claims. On its own, the Office of Housing comprised over 20 per cent of the VCAT Residential Tenancies List, about a third of the total matters brought by all real estate agents representing private landlords combined.
This is despite the Office of Housing as a landlord only being responsible for about 12 per cent of Victorian rental tenancies. Of the 15,990 public housing tenancies vacated over that period, the department submitted 5,866 (37 per cent) applications to VCAT relevant to vacant tenancy maintenance claims.
Just today, Office of Housing have 49 applications against public housing tenants listed in VCAT.
One recommendation relates to simple reforms that housing advocates have identified for some time, such as conducting end of tenancy property inspections.
After some initial confusion, the VPTA participated in the investigation, preparing a detailed submission.
We included witness statements from advocates who had assisted tenants to fight unfair charges in VCAT. Michael Aboujundi provided evidence about fighting unfair charges against tenants as far back as 2014.
In August 2016 the VPTA assisted Max Sanders in a high profile matter that brought attention to the issue. After vacating his public housing, Mr. Sanders received a letter several months after his tenancy ended from the Office of Housing claiming a total cost of repairs at $4336 but accounting for wear and tear that figure was reduced to $1991.
“I was bloody shocked.”
With the assistance of the VPTA, Mr. Sanders fought the matter at VCAT and the bill was reduced to $50.
VCAT data shows that in the most recent 3 years the Director of Housing made 39,504 applications to VCAT.
In our view this represents a colossal waste of public resources.
We thank the Ombudsman for this valuable report. We note that because public housing is managed by the Government, unlike tenants in private or community housing, public tenants benefit from having the additional layer of oversight that the Ombudsman provides.