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London & Quadrant Housing Trust (L&Q) (202220260)

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REPORT

COMPLAINT 202220260

London & Quadrant Housing Trust (L&Q)

31 October 2023

 

Our approach

The Housing Ombudsman’s approach to investigating and determining complaints is to decide what is fair in all the circumstances of the case. This is set out in the Housing Act 1996 and the Housing Ombudsman Scheme (the Scheme). The Ombudsman considers the evidence and looks to see if there has been any ‘maladministration’, for example, whether the landlord has failed to keep to the law, followed proper procedure, followed good practice, or behaved in a reasonable and competent manner.

Both the resident and the landlord have submitted information to the Ombudsman, and this has been carefully considered. Their accounts of what has happened are summarised below. This report is not an exhaustive description of all the events that have occurred in relation to this case, but an outline of the key issues as a background to the investigation’s findings.

The complaint

  1. The compliant is about the landlord’s handling of:
    1. The resident’s transfer application.
    2. The formal complaint.

Background

  1. At the time of the complaint the resident resided in a two-bedroom first floor flat, owned by of the landlord, a housing association. She lived with her husband, who is the representative in this case. The resident and her husband will be collectively referred to as the ‘the resident/they’ in this report.
  2. The resident holds a hybrid tenancy, with an intermediate market rent. The resident and her husband have known medical issues which affect their mobility. In 2017, the resident applied to transfer. At the time, the landlord operated a choice-based lettings system. The resident was placed into ‘Band 3’ for a medical priority. The resident was informed how the system worked, and the requirement to apply for suitable properties. Properties were allocated according to banding, and time on the register. The choice-based lettings system was later closed in May 2021.
  3. The landlord introduced a new allocations and lettings policy in 2021. Subsequently, the resident’s application was backdated to 2017, when they originally applied to transfer. In addition, the resident was advised to explore other housing options, such as contacting the local authority to go onto its housing waiting list, accessing sheltered schemes, mutually exchanging, and privately renting.
  4. The evidence available confirms that the resident made previous complaints of a similar nature in 2021. The complaints related to the length of time it was to be offered a suitable transfer; the lack of communication from the landlord; and the difficulties faced in mutually exchanging, due to the rent level for their property. The landlord confirmed to the resident that the rent could not be changed to aid the Homeswapper application. It added that it was aware it had been covered before and had been a long-standing issue for the residents pursuing a mutual exchange. It had previously advised the resident on what the rent would be recalculated to, and the resident was advised to reflect this in the advert, to cover questions from potential exchange partners. The resident was advised that the waiting time for rehousing was between 12-18 months, and the landlord encouraged the resident to explore all housing options.
  5. In March 2021, the resident was accepted for a ‘direct let’ due to their complex medical needs. The residents would consider all areas but were particular about the property size and the need for a garden. It is understood that during that year, three direct lets were offered, and refused by the resident due to the suitability of the properties. The resident was invited to virtually view a property on 22 February 2022. While the property “came very close”, it was refused as it missed an important part of the resident’s criteria (a garden). The landlord confirmed to the resident that the offer was not classed as “an official offer.”
  6. The landlord responded to a formal complaint in May 2022. It confirmed that the resident had been contacted in February 2022 in relation to their rent enquiry and was advised to reflect a re-calculation of the rent in the advert. It confirmed the re-housing case was active but due to the length of time it would take to make a suitable offer, the resident was advised to seek a mutual exchange, and/or contact the local authority for a housing assessment. The resident confirmed they were happy to close the complaint on 23 May 2022.
  7. It is clear from the resident’s correspondence with the landlord and this service that the resident would like the full history of the case looked at (last six years). However, this investigation has referenced the previous complaint, and the landlord’s responses, for contextual purposes only, as the Ombudsman is limited to investigating only those issues that have progressed through a landlord’s complaints procedure and then brought to the attention of the Ombudsman within a reasonable timescale. As such, this investigation will focus on events from September 2022, up until the landlord’s stage two response in February 2023.

Summary of events

  1. On 28 September 2022, the resident requested clarification from the landlord on refusing properties. The resident confirmed that a previous officer had agreed that a virtual viewing would not count as a formal offer. The landlord confirmed that it had referred to a specific property, and going forward it must keep to the re-housing policy of one-time offers, due to the size and waiting time of its current housing list.
  2. It confirmed that when the resident was matched with a property, it would be a one-time offer. The viewing would be via a video, however a physical viewing would always be offered, so the resident could be certain of their decision. If the resident did not agree that the property match met their recorded requirements, they could appeal the decision. If the appeal was not upheld, the case would be closed, and no further direct offers would be made. The landlord advised it would contact the resident again on 12 October 2022, or before if a match became available.
  3. On 3 October 2022, the resident sent an email of complaint, expressing disappointment that the landlord was “changing the goalposts” for offers, from what had been agreed with a previous officer. The resident requested that the landlord opened a complaint.
  4. In late October, the resident submitted medical evidence from a consultant, who “strongly” supported the resident’s application to move to a ground floor property. The landlord acknowledged the medical correspondence on 11 November 2022, and advised that a complaint had not been opened. However, it previously responded in September 2022 to the resident’s query relating to one-time offers. The resident was advised “if you feel you need to complain this must be completed by the resident, via the landlord’s website.”
  5. The resident emailed the landlord on 14 November 2022 after being “disappointed” with its response and stated:
    1. Despite sending in supporting evidence from medical professionals, the landlord’s response implied that it was no use in assisting with their rehousing, or that it had even read the documents to gain a better knowledge of the resident’s predicament.
    2. The landlord had previously advised it would escalate their concern of not being rehoused for six years, despite the landlord being aware of their mobility and health issues.
    3. No direction or communication had been given regarding having to fill in an online form.
    4. The resident asked that the complaint was escalated.
  6. The landlord logged a complaint on 17 November 2022, in relation to the time taken for the resident to be rehoused and to be able to refuse a property if only viewed via a video link. The landlord confirmed it would contact the resident on or around 12 December 2022 regarding updates on any possible move.
  7. On 18 November 2022, the resident emailed the landlord to thank it for logging a complaint, however, remained “alarmed and upset” that the landlord had not called again that month, since it was agreed to keep the residents updated. The resident was “at a loss as to why” they were still waiting to move. In response, the landlord telephoned the resident the same day to clarify the complaint.
  8. On 23 November 2022, the landlord issued a stage one response which said:
    1. Medical priority had been awarded to help the residents transfer via its rehousing service.
    2. Three properties, which were considered suitable for the resident’s needs were refused.
    3. It did not accept that the property offered in May 2021 was a “reasonable refusal.” However, it agreed to honour one more direct offer, which was approved by a former member of staff, which was above and beyond its one-time direct offer.
    4. A direct offer viewed virtually or in person was classed as an offer.
    5. It was unable to guarantee a large second bedroom (for the grandchildren to stay) as it did not form part of the medical consideration.
    6. Its rehousing service was used to providing homes to its residents, with an urgent need to move. It was not designed to identify desirable features, but to match properties on medical requirements.
    7. It would continue to work hard to match a property for the resident, but most of its properties had to be offered to the local authority, which meant it only had a small number available each year for its rehousing service. Therefore, long wait times were expected.
    8. Alternative housing options were explained, including mutually exchanging, applying to go onto the local authority’s housing register, and renting privately.
    9. The officer in the case would contact the resident once a month.
  9. On 28 November 2022, the resident expressed “disappointment” and “upset” at the response and requested the complaint was escalated because:
    1. The landlord had failed to rehouse them, despite their priority.
    2. The landlord had consistently changed the goal posts to their detriment.
    3. It had previously been agreed with a member of staff that if they viewed a property via video link and refused, it would not be an official offer.
    4. It was agreed to offer a ground floor property with a garden, but the landlord was looking at properties above the ground floor with a lift. However, a garden was needed for the cat, and the residents mental and physical wellbeing.
    5. The three offers that had been made “afforded no privacy”, and “the kitchen could not accommodate a fridge-freezer and the dining room was tiny.” The resident had not seen a video prior to the viewing, which they believed was “in many ways, an unfair offer.”
    6. Due to the rent on their current property, they were having difficulties securing a mutual exchange.
  10. The landlord acknowledged the complaint escalation on 28 November 2022. It advised there was a backlog of complaints, and the complaint would be reviewed in due course.
  11. The resident emailed the landlord on 12 December 2022 after not receiving monthly contact from the landlord, despite its promises. A response email was sent on 28 December 2022 which stated that it wished to maintain communication but would do so on a bi-monthly basis. The resident responded the same day, upset that the communication arrangement had been changed without consultation. He added that it was unacceptable to not be given a timeframe to expect to receive a complaint response, except “in due course.”
  12. In a follow-up email sent on 16 January 2023, the resident asked when a stage two response would be sent. He requested a call from the landlord.
  13. After failing to receive a response from the landlord, the resident contacted this service on 24 January 2023. The landlord was advised by this service to provide a response to the resident, no later than 8 February 2023.
  14. The landlord acknowledged the escalation request on 25 January 2023 and confirmed a response would be issued by 8 February 2023. The resident responded and requested that the landlord also considered the missed deadlines for responding to the complaint, and reiterated the points made on the email sent on 28 November 2022.
  15. A stage two response was issued on 7 February 2023 which confirmed:
    1. There had been miscommunication on its part where its rehousing service was concerned, and it was sorry for any trouble this may have caused.
    2. Three properties had been refused by the resident, on grounds that the second bedroom was too small for visiting grandchildren. It was under no obligation to provide a room for them.
    3. Due to the health and mobility of the resident’s, it would allocate a property on the ground floor, or a higher floor, which was accessible by lift.
    4. It had acted in accordance with its allocations policy which confirmed that if a resident’s appeal was refused, their case would be closed and not matched with further properties. Therefore, it reserved the right to limit the number of refusals allowed.
    5. It was not obligated to consider a cat, as a requirement for a garden.
    6. The resident was previously on the mobility scheme which closed and was replaced by the rehousing scheme in 2021.
    7. It considered remote viewings as an official viewing and not a preliminary step to an in-person viewing.
  16. On 2 February 2023, the resident confirmed to this service that he remained dissatisfied with the landlord’s response because it failed to provide this within its complaint timeframe and failed to address his complaint, the main concern being to be rehoused in appropriate accommodation.
  17. In March 2023, the residents accepted a direct offer of a two-bedroom house with a garden.

Assessment and findings

Policies and Procedures

Allocations and lettings policy 2021

  1. The landlord’s Allocations and Lettings Policy states that it will offer practical housing options advice to existing residents when they wish to move and will promote mutual exchange and downsizing opportunities as well as applying to the local authority’s housing register, privately renting, and sheltered schemes.
  2. There will be situations where the landlord needs to directly rehouse an existing resident, and in these cases, it will match the resident to a property through its rehousing list.
  3. Any offer made will have regard to the definition of suitable alternative accommodation contained in the Housing Act 1988, schedule 2, Part III, which states that the accommodation should be reasonably suitable to the needs of the resident. It will consult the resident on the offer, advising them of their options and consequences of refusing a move.
  4. Should a resident refuse an offer of permanent accommodation as they do not think it is suitable, their rehousing case will be closed. Residents will be offered the opportunity to appeal this decision. The appeal will be heard by a manager who has not been involved in the offer. If the resident does not appeal, or their appeal is refused, their case will be closed, and they will not be matched to any further properties. There is no limitation on the number of offers which will be made, however the policy only allows for an appeal on suitability grounds. If this appeal is refused, then the resident will not be matched to any further properties and their case will be closed.

Complaints policy

  1. The landlord operates a two-stage complaints process. It aims to provide a stage one response within 10 working days, and a stage two response within 20 working days. If it is unable to meet these timeframes, it will explain why and write within a further 10 working days.

Compensation policy

  1. The landlord’s policy (in place at the time of the complaint) confirmed it would make a payment of £10 for failing to respond to a complaint within the timescales published in its complaints policy.

Scope of Investigation

  1. It is acknowledged that the resident stated that the lack of progress with their rehousing application, exacerbated their health conditions. The Ombudsman cannot draw conclusions on the causation of, or liability for, impacts on health and wellbeing in this case. This may be better suited as a personal injury claim through the courts. Nonetheless, consideration has been given to the general distress and inconvenience which the situation may have caused the residents, as well as the landlord’s response to their concerns about their health.

Assessment

  1. This service does empathise with the frustrations caused to the resident, due to the time taken to rehouse them. However, the landlord advised the resident of its severely limited stock and impact the size of the rehousing list was having on waiting list times. Given the acute shortage of social housing, it was reasonable for the landlord to try and manage the resident’s expectations by explaining waiting times. Although it is evident that the resident has stated they waited a lot longer than the 12-18 months suggested by the landlord, it is not possible for the landlord to predict future vacancies, and therefore the suggested waiting time was given as an indication, and not a definitive timeframe.
  2. The landlord’s allocations policy confirmed that residents are matched according to their individual requirements, and prioritised according to the date that the direct offer was approved. The landlord used its discretion to backdate the resident’s application, to 2017, when they originally applied to move. This was a reasonable action to take to improve the resident’s chances of being moved.
  3. It was also helpful for the landlord to provide other re-housing options so that the resident was fully informed of how to maximise their chances of facilitating a move, such as a mutual exchange or joining the local authority’s waiting list.
  4. The resident expressed frustration that a mutual exchange was not a viable option, because of their level of rent. It is evident that while the landlord was not able to change the residents rent, it did confirm that the resident should reflect in the Homeswapper advert that if a move was approved, the rent level would be re-calculated. This addressed the concern raised by the resident, and offered a reasonable solution to ensuring that the rent level was not discouraging perspective applicants. This was a reasonable response which was aimed at improving the resident’s chances of moving.
  5. In addition, the landlord had suggested that the resident considered looking in the private sector for a suitable property. While it is understood that the resident was unwilling to consider this, it was reasonable and in line with its policy for the landlord to suggest, to ensure the resident was considering all viable options to facilitate a move.
  6. After being accepted for a direct let in 2021, the resident was offered three properties, which were declined. It is evident that when the resident previously virtually viewed a property, which was declined, the officer at the time, confirmed it was not an “official offer.” This will have undoubtedly raised the resident’s expectation that a property could be declined via a virtual viewing, and it would not count as a refusal. The landlord set out its position on the matter in its stage one complaint and confirmed that it was an offer, whether the property was viewed virtually or in person. It used its discretion and honoured the resident being offered another property, rather than closing their application, which demonstrates a resident focused approach.
  7. It is worth highlighting that the landlord’s allocations policy, specifically the key changes made in April 2021 state that there is “no limitation on the number of offers which will be made”. The policy only allows for an appeal on suitability grounds and if the appeal is refused then the resident will not be matched to any further properties and their case will be closed”. This suggests that there is a limitation on the number of offers. Therefore, the landlord should consider rewording this section, to avoid ambiguity, and misunderstandings in relation to number of offers.
  8. The landlord has the right to limit the number of refusals, due to the extremely high demand for social housing. However, it is understandable that the resident would have been confused and disappointed which led them to feel that the landlord had “changed the goalposts.” The landlord’s policy is silent on the process regarding virtual viewings. Therefore, it is recommended that the landlord reviews its policy and considers whether it is reasonable for a virtual viewing to be classed as a refusal, to avoid any further confusion on the matter.
  9. Although it is evident that the previous offers had not met the resident’s expectations, the landlord explained the shortage of housing, and that its rehousing list was not designed to identify desirable features (for example, space for fridge freezer, large second bedroom) but to match a property to the requirements of the resident. While the resident was understandably reluctant to move to a property that they did not feel matched all their preferences, the landlord followed the correct procedure and had matched appropriately according to their needs.
  10. The resident expressed concerned that the landlord was considering first floor flats with a lift, which may not have access to a garden, however, the landlord explained that a garden was not part of their medical need, and therefore would not be classed as an essential requirement. This was a reasonable explanation.
  11. While the resident’ experience was frustrating and disappointing, the landlord has shown a willingness to reasonably support the resident and followed correct procedure as per its policy. The landlord has made reasonable offers in line with assessed need, which the resident did not wish to pursue. Therefore, there have been no service failures identified in how the landlord handled the resident’s transfer application.

Complaint handling

  1. The resident expressly requested that the landlord open a complaint on 3 October 2022. The landlord confirmed in later correspondence on 11 November 2022, that it had previously responded to the resident’s query in September and was told that a complaint “must be via its website.” This is not in accordance with its complaints policy which confirms that complaints can be made via phone, email, social media, writing, directly, or via a representative. In failing to take the resident’s complaint at the earliest opportunity, and offering incorrect advice, the resident’s right to access the complaints process was unreasonably delayed. Furthermore, the resident was inconvenienced by having to submit another complaint on 14 November 2022.
  2. The landlord acknowledged the complaint on 17 November 2022 and provided a stage one response on 23 November 2022, 51 working days after the initial complaint was made. By not dealing with the resident’s email of 3 October as a stage one complaint, the landlord missed the opportunity to resolve the complaints at the earliest opportunity, which caused frustration to the resident.
  3. The resident remained dissatisfied with the response, particularly that the landlord had not addressed all the points raised. Specifically, the resident was concerned that the landlord had not communicated effectively and despite it being previously agreed that the landlord would contact monthly with updates, this had not happened. The landlord failed to “investigate all elements of the complaint” which is a departure from its complaints policy, and the Housing Ombudsman Complaint Handling Code to “address all points raised” to facilitate a quick resolution.
  4. Subsequently, the resident escalated his complaint on 28 November 2022. After failing to receive a response, the resident pursued the landlord via email on 16 January 2023 where a call back was requested. The resident failed to receive a response and contacted this service in the hope of receiving a resolution. Following involvement from this service, the landlord provided a stage two response on 7 February 2023. This was issued 72 working days after the resident’s escalation request. This was another significant departure from the 20-working day timeframe, as detailed in its policy. As a result, the resident was denied the opportunity of an earlier escalation to the Ombudsman.
  5. For the most part, the stage two complaint addressed the resident’s concerns and provided justified reasons, according to its policies, for the decisions it the landlord had made. However, there were some failings in that:
    1. It failed to recognise any delay in its complaint responses, or consider any detriment caused to the resident because of this.
    2. It acknowledged that there had been “miscommunication” where rehousing was concerned. While it appropriately acknowledged this, it did not provide the resident with any assurance as to how it would communicate in the future, and how regularly this might be to try and put things right.
    3. It failed to identify any lessons learned from its handling of its communication to the resident which does not demonstrate that it was resolution focused.
    4. The resident had to pursue the matter with this service, to obtain a response from the landlord. This is unreasonable, and further protracted the process.
    5. The resident was dissatisfied that the landlord had changed the frequency of communication from monthly to bi-monthly without consultation. The landlord failed to address this in its stage two response, despite the stage one confirming monthly contact. Failing to fully address the resident’s complaint exacerbated the impact of the failings on the resident.
  6. The landlord should have offered compensation which considered the distress and inconvenience, as well as time and delay caused to the resident because of its poor handling of the complaint.
  7. For the reasons set out, there was maladministration in the landlord’s handling of the resident’s complaint. In relation to the failures identified, orders have been made for the landlord to apologise to the resident and pay £300 compensation. The compensation considers the distress and inconvenience caused to the resident because of the handling of the complaint.

Determination (decision)

  1. In accordance with paragraph 52 of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme, there was no maladministration in respect of the landlord’s handling of the resident’s transfer application.
  2. In accordance with paragraph 52 of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme, there was maladministration in respect of the landlord’s complaint handling.

Reasons

  1. The landlord demonstrates that it followed correct procedure and reasonably tried to manage the resident’s expectations around the limited availability of suitable properties, and the number of residents on its rehousing list looking to move. The landlord showed a willingness to help the resident move and made several offers that it felt, matched the resident’s assessed needs.
  2. However, the landlord did not adhere to the timescales set out in its complaints policy or acknowledge failings in providing stage one and two responses, outside its prescribed timeframes. Furthermore, the landlord delayed the resident’s complaint, and incorrectly advised that the complaint had to be submitted via its website. The landlord failed to offer suitable redress to satisfactorily resolve the detriment caused by these failings.
  3. Following the Ombudsman’s special report in July 2023, this service ordered the landlord to review its complaint handling process, particularly in relation to escalations; addressing all the complaints; adhering to policy timescales; updating residents during complaints; and calculating redress. Because of this, no further orders have been made in terms of its complaint handling.

Orders

  1. The landlord is ordered to, within four weeks of the date of this report:
    1. Apologise to the resident for the failures identified in its complaint handling.
    2. Pay the resident £300 for the adverse effect caused because of its complaint handling failures.

Recommendations

  1. The landlord should consider reviewing its policy to clearly explain whether a virtual viewing is considered as an official offer.
  2. The landlord should consider rewording the section of the allocations policy referred to at paragraph 29 of this report, to avoid ambiguity, and misunderstandings in relation to number of offers.
  3. The landlord should within four weeks, advise this service of its intention in relation to the recommendation.