If you’ve paid even scant attention to Landlord Today or other trade titles, you’ll be familiar with the headlines about rogue operators.
There seems the occasional harsh punishment - a fine of tens of thousands for a buy to let investor who simply forgot to send paperwork to a council, for example.
But usually the punishment fits the crime. There are clearly some landlords (a small minority, but nonetheless an embarrassment to the sector) who fail to adequately invest in their properties, treat their tenants in thoughtless and sometimes heartless ways, have casual disregard for health and safety, and can’t be bothered to handle reasonable gripes or comments from tenants.
To reiterate, this is a tiny minority of landlords but there is no shortage of people to point out their shortcomings - aside from the councils issuing press releases about their prosecutions, opportunistic campaigners are quick to virtue-tweet about these “rogues”.
Yet how little we hear from these polytechnic campaigners about the shocking performance of the social housing sector.
And shocking is perhaps an understatement, for the Housing Ombudsman’s Annual Complaints Review, published recently, makes startling reading.
The Ombudsman - Richard Blakeway - received over 5,000 complaints in a 12-month period for the first time, which is a 28 per cent rise on the previous year.
There are 91 Registered Social Landlords with a maladministration rate of over 50 per cent - that is, over half of the complaints against them for maladministration were upheld by the Ombudsman. There are 25 of those 91 with a record of having 75 or more per cent of complaints upheld.
The Ombudsman also issued 146 Complaint Handling Failure Orders against RSLs, mostly for failing to progress complaints in line with its Complaint Handling Code. It was the large scale RSLs that seem most at fault, with 73 per cent of the Failure Orders going to landlords with over 10,000 homes.
Most worryingly for the Ombudsman, he says, is the overall trend with a 323 per cent increase in severe maladministration findings and a 40 per cent increase in non-severe maladministration findings.
In terms of what residents were complaining about, property condition was once again the leading category, with the Ombudsman making almost 2,000 findings where the failure rate has increased dramatically from 39 to 54 per cent this year. The Ombudsman also found a 52 per cent maladministration rate for health and safety complaints.
Now this is undeniably shocking and Blakeway himself says the “sobering” statistics “reflect a picture of poor practice”. To return to my opening point, you can only imagine the publicity given to the private rental sector if there had been comparable increases in complaints and findings of maladministration.
But there is a wider issue here, equally applicable to both private and social housing sectors.
We are in a time when more people are under more pressure than before, embracing (quite reasonably) higher and growing expectations, facing higher costs for landlords and tenants alike, and with much more publicity given to some issues - right now damp and mould, for example. This means there will be more complaints from more people, especially as there is now a network of tenant support organisations happy to take up complaints for their agenda, as well as to help renters.
And the ability to respond by landlords - public and private - is severely limited: ‘landlord’ as a name has become loaded and they are almost all strapped for cash, especially to remedy extraordinarily expensive faults in an ageing housing stock.
So yes, there is evidence to suggest the social housing record is arguably much worse than that of the private rented sector.
However, remember the bigger picture - when we see complaints rising about landlords, whether housing associations or buy to let amateurs - it’s important to understand the context. In other words, complaints are almost bound to rise: the ability to address them, however, is becoming increasingly difficult.
*Editor of Letting Agent Today and Landlord Today, Graham can be found tweeting about all things property at @PropertyJourn