On 10 August 2016, the Ombudsman announced an investigation into the way the Department of Health and Human Services (the department) manages and pursues maintenance debts against public housing tenants. The investigation was prompted by a complaint from a tenant advocacy service alleging that the department had unreasonably raised and pursued a maintenance debt of over $20,000 against their client, a victim of family violence. Following failed negotiations between the two parties, the department escalated the matter to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) which ultimately determined that the former tenant was liable for just over $1,000, or around five per cent of the costs the department had told them they owed.
The issues raised in this complaint suggested there may be systemic problems in the department’s administration of its debt recovery practices, and this was borne out by the investigation.
The investigation received numerous submissions from current and former public housing tenants, along with advocacy groups, detailing their experiences of the department’s maintenance claims practices. These submissions included 46 detailed case examples, from which the investigation examined 19 public housing tenancy files for closer review. These case studies, drawn from each of the department’s geographic regions, revealed unfair management of maintenance claims over many years.
The issues explored by the investigation have been the subject of ongoing communication between the department and a number of tenant advocacy services which represent people from an increasingly vulnerable public tenant population. Despite changes to the department’s policies and procedures, the investigation identified there has been little to no change in practices on the ground.