The ACT Ombudsman has found Housing ACT caused distress to vulnerable tenants in its plan to relocate them from their long-term homes to new premises as part of the public housing renewal program.
The Ombudsman investigated the circumstances of the relocation program, designed to allow the sale or redevelopment of properties to finance and build new homes, after first looking at complaints from six tenants.
The investigation found that Housing ACT underestimated the impact on tenants and that its communication with them was impersonal and caused significant distress.
“While clearly well-intentioned and based on legitimate public policy goals, Housing ACT did not plan adequately for implementation of the program,” the report said.
The Ombudsman found that the agency did not have a clear exemptions policy and failed to inform tenants of how they could apply for one, placing undue pressure on vulnerable people.
In fact, what information there was did not make it clear to tenants that an exemption was possible.
“This is concerning given the considerable impact of mandatory relocation on tenants,” the report said.
“A fully functioning and transparent exemption process should have been in place from the commencement of the mandatory relocation phase. We were not satisfied that Housing ACT gave this sufficient consideration.”
The report found that Housing ACT should use the information it already has about tenants and their circumstances to proactively consider properties for exemption before telling them that they are required to relocate.
It said Housing ACT had made changes to its exemptions policy but the Ombudsman did not believe these had gone far enough to fix the problem.
“We do not think the publicly available information on the availability of an exemption and the process to seek such an exemption is sufficiently accessible and transparent,” the report said.
The Ombudsman found that Housing ACT’s communication strategy was more concerned about bad headlines than providing all the information to tenants.
Strategies were designed to “decrease escalation to media and ministerial channels” and focused on “quality tenant-focused communications to reduce negative media coverage”, the report said.
Contact with tenants was sporadic, website material was difficult to access, contact numbers were absent and the pitch selling the benefits of moving to a new home overlooked any attachment to their existing home or location, or their individual circumstances.
Housing ACT did not initially communicate clearly with tenants about what the program was intended to achieve and did not initially acknowledge and engage with tenants’ unique circumstances and work with them to consider the impacts on vulnerable people.
It recommended better training for the Tenant Relocation Officers.
The Ombudsman made nine recommendations, which he said could be considered by any ACT Government agency considering current or future programs involving vulnerable residents.
In particular, agencies should take a people-centred approach to communication and engagement, which takes account of vulnerabilities from the outset; publish clear and up-to-date information that is easily located and accessible; and conduct appropriate program and risk planning, including building review and evaluation into program delivery.
“It is essential that Housing ACT balance the legitimate public policy goals of the program with the needs of public housing tenants, especially the most vulnerable: it is one thing to speak of a people-centred approach and another thing to deliver it,” the report said.
Housing ACT accepted eight of the nine recommendations and one in principle.
The Ombudsman said it would continue to monitor the delivery of the Growing and Renewing Public Housing Program and the implementation of its recommendations.
Acting Director-General of ACT Community Services Jo Wood advised ACT Ombudsman Iain Anderson that the required relocation process was the subject of legal proceedings in the Supreme Court, which may result in further changes to the program.