The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: the Council was not at fault and responsible for the financial losses Mrs X suffered when her former tenant failed to pay rent and caused damage to her property.
- Mrs X is a private landlord who lets apartments in her property. She says the Council introduced a prospective tenant, whom I shall call Mrs Z, to her and her letting agents.
- Mrs X complains that the Council gave her assurances that Mrs Z would receive sufficient benefits to cover future rent payments and there was no reason to doubt her suitability as a tenant. Mrs Z went on to build up substantial rent arrears and she damaged the property. Mrs X suffered distress and incurred a significant financial loss. She had to pay Court fees to obtain a Possession Order and a warrant to evict Mrs Z.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
- If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I discussed the complaint with Mrs X and considered all the correspondence she sent us.
- I made enquiries to the Council and considered its response.
- I gave the Council and Mrs X the opportunity to comment on my draft decision.
What I found
- Mrs X lets self-contained accommodation in her home to tenants. She lives in a neighbouring council’s area.
- Torridge District Council offered Mrs Z housing assistance when she was threatened with homelessness by her landlord. At the time she lived in the Torridge area. Her landlord had served her with a Notice To Quit.
- In late June 2017 a Housing Options Officer spoke to the wife of Mrs Z’s landlord. According to his notes, she said they needed Mrs Z’s accommodation for her elderly parents who were in deteriorating health.
- The Council initially tried to prevent Mrs Z being made homeless but, when that approach did not work, it took a homelessness application. The Council placed Mrs Z in emergency hotel accommodation for two nights.
- Mrs X says the Council’s Housing Options Officer introduced Mrs Z to her and her letting agent. The Council says this is not an accurate account of what happened. It says Mrs Z had already found out about Mrs X’s accommodation and had spoken to Mrs Z and her letting agent before she left her former home.
- The Council says the Housing Options Officer did go and view Mrs X’s flat on Mrs Z’s behalf. He did this because the flat was some distance away and Mrs Z’s car was out of service. He reported back to Mrs Z and she said she was interested in the property.
- On 25 August 2017 Mrs X’s letting agents arranged for Mrs Z to sign an assured shorthold tenancy agreement for a term of six months. Mrs X says the Housing Options Officer accompanied Mrs Z when she moved in to Mrs Z’s flat on the same day. The Housing Options Officer says he did not attend on that day but he did visit the flat on other occasions.
- Mrs X says the Housing Options Officer had assured her that Mrs Z would get Housing Benefit and there was no reason to doubt her suitability as a tenant. The Council says the Housing Options Officer had checked the monthly rent, which included bills, was affordable for Mrs X and would be within the Local Housing Allowance limits. He also arranged for her to get a Discretionary Housing Payment.
- The day before she signed the tenancy agreement Mrs Z applied to the Council for a Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) to pay the deposit and rent in advance. The Council notified Mrs Z and Mrs X’s letting agents on the following day that it had approved a DHP of £1,250. This covered the £750 deposit and £500 for one month’s rent in advance. One week later, it paid a further month’s rent in advance (£500) and notified the lettings agent of this decision.
- After moving in to the flat, Mrs Z had to claim Housing Benefit from the Council for that area. The Housing Options Officer knew Mrs Z found it difficult to complete forms. So he visited to help her complete the form and sent it to the other Council to ensure it received the claim.
- In November 2017 Mrs X spoke to the Housing Options Officer. She found out Mrs Z was not getting Housing Benefit. The Council says the Housing Options Officer found out that Mrs Z had a disagreement with the benefits assessor at the other Council. Mrs Z had refused to provide evidence the other Council needed to verify her identity for the Housing Benefit claim. As a result, Housing Benefit was not paid and the rent arrears began to escalate. Torridge District Council was not responsible for dealing with Mrs Z’s Housing Benefit then because she was now living in the other council’s area.
- In December 2017 Mrs X’s letting agent spoke to the Housing Options Officer about Mrs Z breaching the tenancy terms. The Housing Options Officer gave her advice about the procedure for serving a Notice to terminate the tenancy.
- Mrs X says Mrs Z breached many terms of the tenancy agreement. She did not pay rent on the due date and she smoked in the property. Mrs X says she also became aware from Mrs Z’s behaviour that she had mental health issues and misused alcohol. She left all the lights on in the flat and other parts of the building. She said Mrs Z ignored her requests to stop this behaviour. Mrs X feels the Council had duped her into accepting Mrs Z as a tenant.
- The Council says it did not give Mrs X or her letting agent any assurances or guarantees about Mrs Z’s suitability to be a tenant. Its role was to assist Mrs Z under its legal duties to prevent or relieve homelessness. This included giving her financial assistance with a deposit and rent in advance to help her secure alternative private rented accommodation. It did not operate a homefinder scheme to match private landlords and prospective tenants. It did not vet or carry out checks on prospective tenants on behalf of private landlords. It suggests that Mrs X’s letting agents were responsible for carrying out these checks and taking up references for Mrs Z to make sure she would be a suitable tenant.
- The Housing Options Officer knew Mrs X suffered from depression but he did not know about other issues which affected her behaviour.
- Mrs X says Mrs Z owed more than £2,000 rent by the time she left the property in February 2018. Mrs X had to pay £470 in Court fees. She also paid £340 to have the flat professionally cleaned after Mrs Z moved out because she left it in a filthy condition. Mrs X says she recovered some costs from the £750 deposit but she was still left substantially out of pocket. She believes the Council should reimburse her for these losses because it had introduced Mrs Z as a suitable tenant.
- The Council had a duty to advise and assist Mrs Z when she was threatened with homelessness and later became homeless. It awarded a Discretionary Housing Payment to help her secure the tenancy of Mrs X’s flat. This covered the deposit and two months’ rent in advance.
- Mrs Z then built up substantial rent arrears. However, Torridge District Council was not responsible for the Housing Benefit claim after the initial DHP award ended. The other Council handled Mrs Z’s Housing Benefit claim and had to decide if she was entitled to benefit. If Mrs Z did not co-operate, and failed to provide the other Council with the evidence it required to assess the claim, that was not fault by Torridge District Council.
- I have seen no evidence that the Housing Options Officer gave Mrs X or her letting agents any guarantees or assurances that the Council had vetted Mrs Z and vouched for her suitability as a tenant. The Council says Mrs X directly contacted Mrs Z and the letting agent to express an interest in the flat. The Council’s role was to provide financial assistance with the deposit and rent in advance to help her secure the tenancy. I have also noted that Mrs X used the services of a lettings agency. It is usually the letting agent’s responsibility to take up references and carry out checks on prospective tenants for landlords.
- I appreciate Mrs X suffered a significant financial loss which she could ill afford. Mrs Z did not pay the rent due and she left the flat in a very poor condition. That has left Mrs X out of pocket and she and her family found the whole experience very distressing. However, I do not consider this situation arose as a result of fault by the Council.
- Landlords have a legally enforceable contract with their tenants. Where a tenant breaches the terms of their tenancy, and fails to pay the rent or damages the property, landlords have a legal remedy for a breach of contract. They can apply to the Courts for a money judgement for rent arrears and damages.
- I have completed the investigation and found no evidence of fault by the Council.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman