Set Proper Procedures for Handling Resident Grievances
Your staff members deal with various types of requests from residents every day. Occasionally, a resident may feel that his or her issue has not been properly acknowledged, is not being followed up on, or that things are just taking too long. Very quickly, the request can turn into a complaint. Most often, the types of resident grievances that escalate into formal complaints against a site arise from requests for reasonable accommodations or maintenance that have been ignored or overlooked. Other common sources include eviction proceedings and tenant-to-tenant disputes that are not being handled effectively by site management.
How can you ensure that residents’ grievances are handled properly at your site and don't escalate unnecessarily due to staff error? We've asked affordable housing experts to share their insights for developing effective resident grievance procedures.
Present Procedures Clearly
“To keep resident grievances from going from bad to worse, it's important to establish firm protocols for site staff on how to handle complaints,” says Birute Skurdenis, asset manager for Merritt Community Capital Corporation.
Site managers should know before a complaint is lodged exactly what is expected of them, she says. “The most problems occur when people are acting off the cuff.”
Sheila Robles agrees. Robles is director of the Rental Compliance Division for Kansas Housing Resources Corporation (KHRC). She estimates that about three-quarters of complaints that KHRC receives stem from residents who feel that they are not getting a response—or not a sufficient response—from their site management.
Make sure that your grievance procedure is documented and is easily accessible to all of your site staff. Mercy Housing is one of the nation's largest nonprofit affordable housing organizations. It has a formal grievance procedure that is organization-wide, and is available to all site managers through a toolbox that managers can access from the Mercy Web site, says Jennifer Monsarrat, area director of property operations, Mercy Services.
EDITOR'S NOTE: HUD doesn't dictate what language you must use in your grievance policy. Instead, Handbook 4381.5, REV-2 (The Management Agent Handbook) requires managers to ensure a minimum amount of resident involvement at the site and encourages managers to foster strong resident-management relations (see What the HUD Handbook Says). Adopting a formal grievance policy will go a long way toward satisfying these requirements and avoiding—or, if necessary, responding to—formal discrimination complaints and lawsuits claiming violations of the Fair Housing Act. To learn more about how to respond properly to a fair housing complaint so that you can defeat the claim or minimize the damages, see “How to Address a Formal Fair Housing Complaint,” in the November 2010 issue of our sister newsletter, Fair Housing Coach.
Act Quickly to Acknowledge Complaint
How well your staff listens and responds to residents’ concerns can make the difference between an amicable resolution at the site or a formal complaint escalated to HUD—or even a lawsuit.
Acting quickly is key. Residents want to feel that they're being listened to, and that their complaint is being taken seriously, says Robles. “Respond immediately, acknowledge the resident's concern, and assure him that you are working on his issue,” she says. “The more responsive management is, the less chance that it will turn into something more than it should have been.”
Make sure that staff members are trained in active listening techniques, and know how to use them effectively. Simply citing policies and house rules without allowing residents to air their concerns will leave residents feeling that the site's grievance process is pointless, and they may try to sidestep it by taking their complaints directly to HUD or another source. On the other hand, managers who can demonstrate genuine interest in helping residents resolve their issues often can turn around potentially negative situations.
PRACTICAL POINTER: When a resident comes to you with a complaint, try not to be defensive or you will put up a wall that will make future communication difficult. Put personalities aside, and focus on resolving the issue.
Get Supervisory Input
Many times, site managers simply burn out and lose their ability to remain neutral. At that point, “they've lost the ability to listen, and they respond with a knee-jerk reaction,” says Skurdenis. “It's important to include supervisory input in your protocols, so that the manager understands at what point—and it should be fairly early—that someone else should be brought into the process, if it can't be resolved.”
At Mercy Housing, the focus is on resident satisfaction. The formal grievance procedure includes several escalation points. “The procedure includes a first response from the manager, and then if the resident is not satisfied, he then files a written grievance that will then include the property supervisor.” If the resident is still not happy with the resolution, he can escalate the complaint up to the director and then to the divisional vice president. “We strive not to have to go that far,” Monserrat adds. “We try to keep it from escalating by doing what we can to keep the resident satisfied.”
Mercy's resident services department, along with a resident services coordinator at each of the sites, helps to ensure that grievances are handled consistently and effectively. “We immediately get the resident service coordinator involved in the grievance as a liaison between the manager and resident—so usually things don't escalate,” she says.
Sometimes, if a resident's past relationship with authority has been negative, he may feel more comfortable talking with a staff member who is perceived as having less authority, and therefore, is less threatening, says Skurdenis. If you sense that this may the case, ask another member of your staff to step in and work with the resident to resolve the grievance.
Ask the resident to submit details about the grievance in writing, including a description of the complaint, when and where it occurred, and who was involved (including the names of management, site staff, other residents, witnesses, etc.).
Your formal policy should include a time frame for investigating a resident's complaint (such as 72 hours). Make sure that residents understand not only what is expected of them throughout the process, but also the next steps that management will be taking, and when they can expect to hear back from you.
Follow Up with Resident
If you find that the resident's complaint has arisen from a misunderstanding of policy, respond to the resident in writing, and direct him to the house rules, lease items, or policy that addresses their concern. Offer the resident the opportunity to schedule a time to come into the office and discuss any additional concerns that he may have, says Robles.
“In that case, it's a good idea to have another person in the office—an assistant manager or even a maintenance person—so that there is another observer if the resident wants to escalate the complaint.”
If you find that the resident's complaint is justified, apologize for any inconvenience the resident may have suffered, and immediately begin working to correct and resolve the issue, says Skurdenis. “Also, thank the resident for helping you to establish better policies.”
Take Action on Findings
Residents’ grievances that are validated should be looked at as opportunities to improve. Perhaps the complaint has highlighted a gap in staff training, a policy that needs refining, or a system that's outdated.
If the resident's issue is with a staff member, more supervisory attention may be needed, Skurdenis says. She recommends that supervisors follow up to see how staff members are interacting with the residents, and how they are resolving issues. “Listen in while staff are dealing with residents in interviews, or walk about the property with the manager to see how they interact with residents, and whether it is positive interaction.”
Jennifer Monsarrat: Area Director of Property Operations, Mercy Services Corporation; (415) 355-7125; email@example.com; www.mercyhousing.org.
Sheila Robles: Director, Rental Compliance Division, Kansas Housing Resources Corp.; (785) 296-1134; Srobles@kshousingcorp.org; www.kshousingcorp.org.
Birute Skurdenis: Asset Manager, Merritt Community Capital Corp.; (510) 444-7870; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.merrittcap.org.
What the HUD Handbook Says
Chapter 4 of the HUD Handbook 4381.5, REV-2 (The Management Agent Handbook) covers regulations that establish several basic requirements for resident involvement. HUD views these requirements as “minimum standards” and encourages owners and managers to take additional steps to foster strong resident-management relations. Recommended steps include:
Promote enhanced communication. Residents and resident organizations should be given the opportunity to voice their views and concerns. Owners and managers are encouraged to actively seek out constructive comments and suggestions.
Increase resident access to management. When residents have easy access to managers, it often increases the likelihood that managers will learn of problems before they escalate into a more severe situation.
Ensure proper consideration and acknowledgement of resident input. When residents offer their input, they need to know that it is taken seriously. Appropriate follow-up shows residents that their views are valued.
Follow up promptly and appropriately. All site staff should be encouraged to respond to resident complaints and concerns promptly and in an appropriate manner. Owners and managers should advise staff who interact regularly with residents to take their concerns seriously. HUD advises owners and managers to establish a system to track resident complaints and concerns, and how they are handled.
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