Lime Legal

Don’t call us…

Published 21 April 2023

Shocked by the way tenants have had their housing complaints ignored in Kensington and Chelsea, local councillor Emma Dent Coad has compiled a report detailing the neglect. ROOF reports

Three years after becoming a councillor in the wealthy inner London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Emma Dent Coad is shocked at the inefficiency of some registered social landlords (RSLs) and their lackadaisical approach to tenants’ grievances.

Her election in Golborne, a ward with a high proportion of tenants, has brought to light serious deficiencies in the way RSLs respond to complaints which, she claims, verge on the criminally neglectful.

Coad has issued a report on RSLs’ handling of casework which highlights common failings together with some real horror stories. The report relates a number of cases where social landlords took several weeks to respond to their tenants’ complaints, and some instances where complaints were ignored altogether.

In one case, Coad says, she had to exert pressure on a housing officer who showed extreme reluctance to assist a couple who were in a desperate state and contemplating suicide. In another, a disabled resident waited seven months for her front door to be mended, leaving her at risk of crime or physical attack.

Another couple reported that they received a bill for over £1,000 for cleaning and maintenance work that had not been carried out. They had to wait five weeks, living under the threat of eviction, before getting a response to their complaint.

At least two vulnerable tenants were evicted on grounds Coad regards as insufficient.

‘Apart from the almost criminal inefficiency of some officers, others are so condescending and rude that it is shocking,’ Coad said. ‘I personally witnessed such comments and had to complain.

‘Many officers treat tenants as their enemy, rather than as customers. RSLs are particularly weak when dealing with harassment and neighbour nuisance – often the solution is to move the victim, rather than address the issue of intimidation.

‘I want to ensure better training for housing officers. There are good officers and chief executives, but we need more like them.’

Coad says that when she became a councillor she was particularly concerned about the plight of residents in difficulty or disadvantaged by physical or mental ill health or language. She has dealt with scores of cases, most of which relate to housing.

Her report deals with Kensington Housing Trust, Octavia Housing, Paddington Churches Housing Association and Kensington and Chelsea’s tenant management organisation (TMO). The worst performing landlords were marked out by unevenness and incompetence in the way in which they handled cases.

‘I work part-time, and can be dealing with up to 20 or 30 live cases at a time,’ Coad says. ‘It is almost impossible to provide a fair service to residents when having to chase organisations repeatedly for a response.’

Issues included disputes over housing and rehousing, homelessness, rough sleeping, disability, home care, overcrowding, antisocial behaviour, neighbour harassment, nuisance dogs, pest control, repairs and maintenance, debt, rent arrears, threatened and actual eviction, and drug dealing.

Cases involving evictions and threatened evictions (just over 10 per cent) were restricted to Kensington and Chelsea’s TMO and Kensington Housing Trust. But antisocial behaviour/dogs (17 per cent) and conflicts about housing, maintenance and property repairs (59 per cent) made up the bulk of the cases dealt with.

While some of these cases involved just a few emails, others took up many hours of visits, phone calls and meetings. There were just seven ‘success stories’ out of 41 cases, with four families rehoused, one no longer in debt, one having a bill cancelled and – in a joint effort with other councillors – a crackhouse being closed down.

However the bulk of the cases were far more problematic. A couple with one partner bedridden was living in very poor housing. The RSL ignored emails and phone calls, and when the condition of the ill partner deteriorated the caring partner was close to mental breakdown and talking about committing suicide.

‘Apart from the almost criminal inefficiency of some officers, others are so rude that it is shocking’

‘After more than six months, in which I never received a single reply from the chief executive to phone calls and 38 emails, the couple were rehoused. However, the caring partner suffered a breakdown and was hospitalised, which was no great surprise after what they had endured,’ Coad says.

‘One of the worst cases I dealt with concerned a disabled resident, who had countless problems related to repairs and accessibility, which have been made worse by the inaction of the RSL. I phoned and emailed the housing manager, with no response.

‘The resident’s front door was broken and was impossible to close or lock properly. For seven months, the resident was at times locked in, or locked out, and had to climb in through the window, once injuring themselves which required hospital admission. At one point, the lock jammed and this disabled person had to sleep with a door open to the street.’

Another couple had moved flats, but had been sent a bill for ‘cleaning and maintenance’ for more than £1,000. The pair insisted that none of the work had been necessary. They had been told to pay or face the threat of eviction. But they had proof after having taken photographs of the flat before leaving. Eventually the bill was cancelled and they received an apology, as evidently the maintenance company had misrepresented the work done.

One family is still overcrowded, despite the RSL being told of their situation nearly three years ago. Adult children are sharing a bedroom and their parent, who is elderly and suffering heart problems, is sleeping on a sofa in the living room. Sleep is difficult because a nuisance neighbour plays music all night.

The parent was hospitalised after a heart attack. Environmental health and the police visited several times and told the neighbour to be considerate, with little effect. Twenty-three emails have had little impact – the majority were ignored.

Many residents in a block complained about a crackhouse in one flat. This was constantly denied by the RSL (which claimed that the offenders were simply ‘drinkers’) despite the fact that the crackhouse had been targeted by the police, and a councillor threatened by the flat’s occupants. The RSL was slow to act and it took more than 18 months to evict the troublemakers.

Another tenant had suffered relationship breakdown. The partner who had left the home made malicious allegations of violence against the remaining tenant in an attempt to get them evicted. ‘There was no evidence for the allegations,’ Coad says. ‘But even though the tenant was clinically depressed, the housing officer was bullying.

‘I was shocked when I witnessed it. The complaints procedure was not followed, and staff were at times extremely rude. I was forced to make a complaint, but the tenant was evicted anyway. I believe the person was vulnerable and the action was taken on questionable grounds.’

Another family consisted of an elderly parent and two adult children, one of whom was bedridden with multiple health problems. ‘I was contacted because of neighbour nuisance – the neighbour returning home drunk in the early hours, banging doors and being offensive. His visitors would also bang on the door and shout abuse.

‘The RSL said there was no nuisance, and that it was a case of “give and take”. Rather than deal with the perpetrators, they offered the family a move, which was finally accepted months after the original complaint.

‘This was another case where the victims of harassment were moved out. Their allegations were disbelieved by the RSL despite police knowledge, until the family GP intervened.’

These cases are representative of the issues councillors have to deal with, Coad says. ‘The cases that resulted in rehousing were due to a harassment issue that was not addressed.

‘The problem is cases are often passed between officers and it is impossible to work out who to chase up and who is accountable. Each case should be assigned to one officer who sees it through, even if aspects are dealt with by other officers.

‘Often when residents come to you they have been trying to cope alone for some time, and feel they have failed. Some vulnerable residents coping with debilitating illness and constant pain can be, unsurprisingly, cantankerous.

‘This is not their fault and they should be treated equally. Officers must learn to care and to deal with those vulnerable people who find it difficult to accept help.’

She says that in cases of neighbour nuisance, the first recourse is often mediation. However, by the time a case is reported, the situation is usually too bad for mediation to be effective. Some cases relate to neighbours who have problems controlling alcohol or substance use; hardly a good case for mediation.

‘Often the “solution” is to offer rehousing for the victim of harassment. This is not good for the neighbours left behind, and only delays dealing with the real issue.

‘I was often told, “there have been no complaints on this matter.” There could be two reasons for this: residents are often exhausted by the complaints procedure or complaints “go missing”. I know of several examples where complaints have never been acknowledged or dealt with, ever.

‘Most RSLs do not keep to their published procedures and timescales. They must train their staff better to deal with the complaints system, and to apply it stringently.’