Social housing residents’ vulnerabilities too often missed, says ombudsman

Grief and financial distress must be considered among factors that can make a social housing resident vulnerable, according to a new report calling for a Royal Commission with the aim of forming a long-term plan for the sector.

The Housing Ombudsman Service said it has seen evidence of landlords failing to consider such vulnerabilities, giving examples of insensitive comments made to a woman about her terminally-ill daughter and landlords losing the ashes of residents’ family members.

In its latest report focused on attitudes, rights and respect, the ombudsman said it had assessed what it means to be vulnerable in social housing in 2024 and how social landlords can better respond to the needs of those residents.

It has called for a new Royal Commission – a type of committee appointed for a specific investigatory or advisory purpose – for housing, which it said could be “transformative” because such a probe would be independent of Government and “not impeded by politics”.

The report – made up of more than 1,663 public responses from a call for evidence and hundreds of ombudsman cases – said that, while vulnerability is defined under the Care Act, not everyone who is vulnerable will meet this legal definition.

It said landlords must note that some vulnerabilities can be short term and include factors such as grief and financial distress.

On misconceptions around social housing tenants, the report cited the experiences of Grenfell Tower residents, and the family of two-year-old Awaab Ishak who died from a respiratory condition caused by prolonged exposure to mould in his housing association flat.

The ombudsman said a “skewed perception about the make up of social housing residents has created an environment where social housing tenants can be stigmatised and ‘othered’”.

In its report it also gave anonymised examples of situations where there had been disregard for things like bereavement and loss, including one case where a landlord was ordered to pay compensation after pests caused damage to the resident’s late daughter’s belongings, and “more than one case where the landlord has lost the ashes of residents’ family members”.

In one case it is understood a resident had temporarily moved out after a relative died and returned to find the landlord had changed the locks and disposed of all of her belongings, despite knowing she would return, while another saw the residents’ belongings go missing in transit.

The report stated: “This shows an inappropriate level of carelessness, as well as a lack of consideration and respect.”

Another example saw a domestic abuse survivor advised by the landlord to return to her property, and a resident’s mental health problems blamed for the landlord missing repair appointments.

The ombudsman noted examples of “disrespectful and unprofessional” remarks being made about residents, as it warned internal communications “should be factual, respectful and avoid opinion or judgments”.

Other recommendations include the need for a “vulnerability strategy”, which would include how it is defined, who assesses it, and what the review process is; a specific reasonable adjustments policy; and minimum staff training on customer care, mental health, learning disabilities, and sight and hearing loss.

It also suggested landlords set out a “resident of the future” forecast for the next 10 years, taking account of the ageing population and volatility in the labour market caused by technology and artificial intelligence, which it said “could create more fragile livelihoods for social tenants to a greater extent” than since the global financial crisis.

Ombudsman Richard Blakeway said: “This sector has a proud history of tackling social injustice and this housing crisis speaks to new social injustices in health, equality and race and it can rise to this challenge for the benefit of the country.

“Our calls for a Royal Commission, which is independent of Government and not impeded by politics, could be transformative.

“Central to our report is what it means to be vulnerable in social housing today, how landlords can respond effectively, and how to do so without stigma or marginalisation.

“Too often in our casework, residents’ vulnerabilities are missed or the response is inappropriate. Too often the concept of vulnerability is ill-defined by the landlord.

“Disrepair in homes or poorly handled anti-social behaviour in neighbourhoods is creating – or exacerbating – vulnerabilities.”

The ombudsman said there have also been instances of good practice by landlords, with some restructuring their housing departments to better meet the needs of their residents, and added that the sector could also do with more help on things like being supported to capture data on the full range of vulnerabilities which exist.

A spokesperson for the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said the Government is taking “significant action” to improve the quality of social housing accommodation and to give tenants a “proper voice”.

They said: “The Social Housing (Regulation) Act will deliver transformative change across the sector, rebalancing the relationships between landlords and tenants and ensuring landlords are held to account for their performance.

“Tragic cases such as that of Awaab Ishak must never happen again, that’s why we’ve introduced Awaab’s Law to force social landlords to address hazards such as damp and mould within strict timeframes.

“Landlords must consider the Ombudsman’s report carefully and ensure they are taking the needs of vulnerable residents into account.”