Public housing failures in meeting the needs of tenants with disability
29 Jul 2022
In a report tabled in Parliament today the NSW Ombudsman, Paul Miller, has called for significant improvements to be made to the delivery of public housing disability modifications.
The report, Modifying public housing properties to meet the needs of tenants with disability – issues identified through complaints, tells the story of 3 public housing tenants who requested reasonable disability modifications to make their homes safe for them.
Government policy says the process should have taken 30 days. Instead, in each case it took over a year. There were repeated failures to respond to the tenants and occupational therapists, miscommunications between contractors and government agencies, and failures to keep proper records.
In the meantime, the tenants were forced to live in premises that were unfit or unsafe for their needs.
Public housing is the joint responsibility of the Land and Housing Corporation (LAHC) - the ‘landlord’ of public housing premises, and the Housing division of the Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ Housing) - the tenancy-relationship manager. Disability modifications are undertaken by sub-contractors, working for head contractors engaged by LAHC.
In 2016, the contractual arrangements with head contractors for maintenance and modification works on public housing premises were replaced. In part, those changes were intended to address issues raised over many years in tenants’ complaints about delays and poor service. However, the Ombudsman’s report notes that complaints to the Ombudsman from public housing tenants have risen since the new contract was introduced.
“Public housing tenants may complain to us after they have already raised their concern with DCJ Housing and LAHC, and not received a satisfactory response. When we then engage with the agencies, we will typically see that particular tenant’s issue resolved quite quickly,” the Ombudsman, Paul Miller said. “However, what we have not seen is a sustained improvement in the overall trend of complaints, which continue to raise similar issues.”
The Ombudsman has therefore made 27 recommendations for improvement, informed both by the 3 complaints that were investigated in depth, as well as other complaints received by the Ombudsman since 2018.
What the NSW Ombudsman found:
- Unacceptable delays in the delivery of disability modifications, poor communication with tenants, failure to keep accurate and comprehensive records, insufficient oversight of contractors’ work, and ineffective complaint-handling.
- DCJ Housing and LAHC failed to inform the tenants about important decisions made about their requests, and at times were not able to provide accurate information because of their own lack of visibility over the work of contractors.
- Responses to complaints were unreasonably delayed. In several cases DCJ Housing failed to advise tenants of the outcome of their complaints.
- The report highlighted the need to:
- place the tenant at the centre of the agencies’ operations in line with the Government’s Towards a customer-centric strategy, and apply the 6 basic Commitments to effective complaint handling
- clarify and recommit to LAHC’s legal obligation to provide 'reasonable adjustments' to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability
- collect data about disability modifications to better understand the demand for modifications and any improvements needed.
- The Ombudsman made 27 recommendations, including that DCJ Housing and LAHC apologise to tenants where appropriate.
- Both agencies should conduct an in-depth root cause analysis of delays in processing requests, update their internal policies and procedures to clarify the guidance available to staff about recording information and communicating with tenants, and develop business rules to guide staff on how to deal with urgent disability modification requests.
- The Ombudsman also recommended that both agencies conduct staff training on the processing of disability modifications and on handling complaints, and consider enhancing or upgrading their IT systems to improve recordkeeping.
- The agencies have advised they have already started work on implementing the recommendations.
- The Ombudsman will continue to monitor the progress of implementation of his recommendations.
The stories of 3 public housing tenants
Mary Cole’s story
(See pages 16-18 of the report)
Mary had a spinal condition that meant she was unsteady on her feet. She had already fallen several times on the slippery kitchen floor, resulting in a broken knee. In 2017, supported by a letter from her doctor, she asked DCJ Housing to review the floor. After lengthy negotiations with contractors, LAHC approved the application of a non-stick coating to the floor, rather than replacing it as initially requested. It then took 9 months to complete the work, during which time Mary was effectively left in the dark – no one kept her informed of progress, or explained the increasing delays.
She lodged 3 formal complaints while she waited. The agencies were slow in resolving them, again failing to communicate with Mary about the delay or the outcome of the complaints. Mary complained to us in late 2018 – the work was completed shortly after this, but the non-slip coating proved ineffective and further trip hazards emerged. Ultimately, in March 2019 the floor had to be replaced as initially recommended. The Deputy Secretary at DCJ Housing apologised personally to Mary in June 2021.
Anne Bailey’s story
(See pages 18-20 of the report)
Anne had an intellectual disability and a condition that limited her mobility. She needed assistance with daily tasks, including showering. Her declining mobility meant she could no longer safely access her bathroom – in 2017 Anne’s occupational therapist applied for modifications to the bathroom and the floor. It took 7 months to modify the floor, and over a year for the bathroom work (which was initially overlooked). While she was waiting, Anne suffered a serious reinfection of a wound due to the lack of access to a shower.
After the occupational therapist followed up several times and made a complaint to us in 2018, the bathroom works were approved and commenced. Anne was meant to stay in temporary accommodation for 9 days while the bathroom modification occurred, but further delays meant she stayed for more than twice that long. Among other things, the Ombudsman has recommended that DCJ apologise to Anne.
William Kelly’s story
(See pages 20-21 of the report)
William Kelly’s mobility was significantly restricted following a traffic accident, and he used a wheelchair to get around. He submitted a transfer request as his unit was not wheelchair accessible. The request took over a year to be approved. While William waited for the transfer, DCJ Housing denied his request to install a ramp because the block of units was proposed to be redeveloped once he had vacated. William felt he had no other choice but to install a makeshift ramp, which did not meet required standards and was not approved for use. When it rained and the ramp got slippery, William had to enter his unit via the stairs and leave the wheelchair outside.
This situation continued for 18 months, despite numerous inquiries and requests to DCJ Housing to progress William’s transfer to a suitable, wheelchair accessible home. From February 2018 to June 2019, DCJ offered then withdrew several properties as they were not wheelchair accessible. In April 2020, William received an offer to transfer to another property, which he accepted pending appropriate modifications that were recommended by his occupational therapist. Following a dispute as to what modifications would be approved, in September 2020, William relinquished his unit and left the NSW public housing system. William has said that he would not welcome an apology from DCJ.