A social housing tenant has been repeatedly wrongly accused of missing rent payments, causing him considerable stress. Appealing to the Housing Ombudsman the tenant was told that “mistakes happen”. But the tenant has uncovered evidence that the errors occurring in Northwards Housing’s rent payment system, causing them to wrongly accuse him, have happened 6482 times.
Northwards Housing is an arms-length management organisation (ALMO) that took over the running of North Manchester’s council housing stock in 2005, and now manages over 13,000 City Council properties in North Manchester.
Frank* moved in to his newly refurbished Northwards two bedroom flat in 2012, when he was in full time employment as a sports physiotherapist. He was very happy with his new move saying:
“As soon as I moved in I thought this is where I want to stay for the rest of my life. I love this flat, I love the area, I am going to buy this flat on the Right to Buy system”.
It was while he was going through the Right to Buy process that his health took a turn for the worse. Frank, who is in his mid 40s, fell ill with abdominal cancer in 2014. It was the first time in his life he had not been able to work and was forced to claim welfare payments. While healthy and in work he had paid his rent by direct debit, but decided to pay by rent payment book (used to pay rent at post offices or banks) when he started claiming welfare payments, to avoid bank charges for going overdrawn.
Frank was wrongly accused of missing rent payments a total of five times, over 18 months, when he had receipts to prove otherwise.
Five accusations in 18 months
The first time he was wrongly accused of missing rent payments occurred in December 2014. He then received an email accusing him of missing a rent payment in February 2015. It was through this second wrongful allegation that he learned of an account for misplaced rent payments, when a Northwards employee stated:
“I have checked the details and it appears that the payment made on 11 February 2015 went into what we call a suspense account. This is because it came through on the wrong reference number and then had to be transferred across to your rent account.”
Two more allegations followed from Northwards, one in March and the other in August 2015. For each accusation he provided proof that he had indeed paid his rent, and levelled criticism at Northwards for their error-prone payment system.
According to Frank, it was the fifth accusation that was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. On 23 May 2016, he received a letter stating he had not been making rent payments and demanding he appear at a meeting with them, a meeting he did not attend as he had evidence once again he had paid his rent.
There quickly followed a visit to his home from a Northwards rents officer on the 31 May 2016, he once again retrieved his rent receipts and showed them to the Northwards official. Frank says the rent officer suggested that he should have told Northwards he had paid his rent after making the payment, to which Frank argued that he wouldn’t pay a bill and then phone the company to to tell them he’s paid, asserting that the problem is with Northwards, not him.
Official complaint to Housing Ombudsman
Frank lodged an official complaint with Northwards stating that due to an error prone payment system Northwards employees did not have the correct data to hand regarding rents paid, and were making incorrect decisions and carrying out unwarranted actions. Following the Northwards complaints procedure he also submitted his allegation of maladminstration to the Housing Ombudsman in June 2016, with the help of local politician Lucy Powell MP. This was was a time consuming and complicated task but Frank was determined to rectify the problem, not just for his own sake, saying:
“This is happening to me but I am sure I am not the only one, I am big enough and ugly enough to look after myself, but what about the poor buggers that aren’t. What if they have got somebody who has some form of learning difficulty, or an elderly person, and they get threatened with eviction. They are not going to turn round and say ‘I am not putting up with this’, they are going to go ‘Oh God’!”
Even after he had submitted his official complaints Frank claims he was again wrongly accused twice more by Northwards of missing rent payments.
6482 unidentified rent payments
To find out how often rent payments were disappearing into a suspense account Frank submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to Northwards. The response showed that 6482 payments had been made into the suspense account between January 2015 and the 22 May 2017, this was for payments made from all Northwards tenants during that period. Northwards states that this is equal to, “1.1 % of overall payments made in this period”. However it does not state what 6482 payments is as a percentage of payments made by rent payment book, or payment card, in this period. The Northwards response to the FOI request also fails to answer the question of how long payments remain in the suspense account, before they are matched with the correct account.
The reason Northwards gave for this is that payments entered using the wrong reference number were deposited into the suspense account, where they would eventually be identified and transferred into the correct account. Northwards Housing suggested that this type of error could have occurred at a post office when a wrong account number is entered by hand, and referred to the problem as a “human and not a system error”. Frank struggled to see what difference the type of error made was, saying:
“It’s alright for them to say it’s not a system error, but it is still an error, and they are not doing anything to rectify it…The main issue about this is that they have not got the correct data to hand to act in a professional manner, due to that they are making incorrect decisions and making unwarranted actions. If they are doing it to me who else are they doing it to?”
It appears Northwards may not be the only social housing landlord having difficulties matching rent payments to the correct accounts. Private Eye (No.1449) documents that a board meeting of a London based Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) raised concerns about £100,000 of missing rent payments and rent arrears, in 2015-16. The executive director of financial services at the TMO told the board, the Eye reports, that “there wasn’t really a problem with rent control. The only issue was trying to match £100,000 of rent tenants had paid to the correct accounts”.
Housing Ombudsman decision
Prior to receiving the Freedom of Information reply from Northwards, Frank received a disappointing decision to his complaint from the Housing Ombudsman. After waiting nearly a year for the decision, it stated that there had been “no maladministration by the Landlord”. Surprisingly the decision only referred to one instance of wrongly accusing Frank of missing rent payments, stating: “the evidence suggests that it was a one off incident”. Frank is adamant that evidence supporting seven separate episodes was provided to the Ombudsman, five in the original complaint and two following it, which the Ombudsman had agreed to accept into the ongoing complaint.
A review of the decision was requested, and Frank decided to submit his Freedom of Information (FOI) request to provide further evidence to support his case. He asked the Ombudsman to wait for the FOI to arrive before commencing their review but they refused, carried out the review, and upheld their original decision. The Ombudsman stated in correspondence following the review decision that they refused to accept new evidence because it was,“not relevant to the Ombudsman’s assessment of your complaint”. Frank disputes the decision that the FOI data is not relevant, because it concerns rent payments placed into the Northwards suspense account, which were responsible for the repeated accusations of missed payments against him.
Every official avenue exhausted
Determined to achieve justice for himself and the many other residents he suspected had suffered the same treatment, Frank contacted every official organisation he could think off. Amongst them was The Housing and Communities Agency (HCA), the regulator that deals with tenants’ complaints against social housing landlords. It was set up in April 2012 to replace the Tenants Services Authority which was abolished due to austerity cuts. Private Eye (No.1447) describes it facing accusations of being “toothless” from tenants, tenants’ groups and MPs and went on to state:
“The HCA managed to avoid doing very much at all, save finding reasons that complaints against landlords should not be pursued”.
Frank’s request for help from them also met with HCA not doing very much at all. His repeated communications with Manchester City Council and Northwards led the Corporate Complaints Team of the city council to inform Frank that he was “at the stage of being considered as vexatious or unreasonably persistent”. This means they will file but not respond to future communications. Frank is concerned this label may prove a problem for him in future if he decides to again undertake buying his flat through the Right to Buy scheme.
Communication with the Department for Communities and Local Government did reveal that the Housing Ombudsman had its own internal complaints process, to be used by people dissatisfied with the way a complaint has been handled. This internal complaints procedure had not been pointed out to Frank by the Housing Ombudsman after he disputed their decision. He has now lodged an internal appeal against the Ombudsmans decision, which also asks why only one accusation of missed payments was considered, and is waiting for a response.
Northwards Housing Response
Father Stephen Brown, director of business and property services for Northwards Housing, said:
“There have been no system errors… All Northwards tenants making payments in person are given an electronic rent card to use, which ensures that payments are made to the correct account.
“However, [certain tenants] insist on using the temporary rent book we give new Northwards tenants to allow them to pay rent in the short period between starting their tenancy and their rent account being created. This book is intended to be a temporary solution as processing payments requires the person taking the payment to manually input the information. This can lead to human error. When this occurs, the incorrect payment enters a suspense account, where it is subsequently identified and placed onto the correct account. The suspense account acts as a safety net so that tenants’ payments are not misplaced.
“The 6,482 payments that have entered this account are a very small percentage (1.1%) of overall rent payments. They are nearly always a result of a first payment being received before the tenant’s rent account has been set up on the system. This is normal, and payments are correctly allocated as soon as the account is live. No tenant would ever be pursued because their first payment was delayed in this manner.”
“It’s not about me, it’s about the other tenants”
It was only after two and a half years of struggle and repeated knock backs from the authorities, that Frank decided to contact The Meteor to tell the story:
“It’s not about me, it’s about the other tenants. If they actually start reading this they will think to themselves ‘hang on a minute, that’s happened to me too’ and it might actually make the buggers [the authorities] rectify the situation in the end. Nobody else has. Every other organisation that is meant to be responsible for this sort of thing has done nothing.”
All the way through this battle with the authorities Frank has also had to fight against cancer – twice. The initial occurrence of abdominal cancer was successfully treated and went into remission. Unfortunately the cancer reappeared in 2016, around the time he was lodging his complaint to the Housing Ombudsman.
Once again he has successfully battled against cancer and is waiting to see his specialist to be given the all clear. Frank also has chronic pancreatitis, but despite all these health, employment and housing problems he managed to finish a teacher training degree in 2016. His health has significantly recovered and he is looking forward to returning to full time employment once he has been given the go ahead by his doctors, which he hopes will be soon.
*Frank is not the real name of the Northwards Housing tenant. It has been changed as he wishes to remain anonymous.
Have you been affected too? Contact us
Are you a tenant of Northwards Housing who has experienced rent payment problems, particularly being wrongly accused of non-payment? If you are please contact The Meteor, we would like to investigate this matter further.
Phone: 07504 331959
Feature Image photo: Conrad Bower