Published by ‘Inside Housing magazine’ 01/10/2020.
At its heart, the world of social housing is not about markets, shares and GDP, it’s about trying to put food on the table and keeping a roof over people’s heads. With Universal Credit claims up and the eviction ban lifted in England, here’s how we are trying to protect tenants, writes Simone Russell
The financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic will clearly be severe. The UK is now in the deepest recession for years.
But as we in the social housing sector know, to households struggling to make ends meet this is not about world markets, shares and GDP. It’s about trying to put food on the table, paying essential bills and a keeping roof over heads.
A number of our tenants often find it tough to manage their budgets. But for those already in difficulty, the pandemic has dealt a swift and potentially final blow to any chance of holding things together.
We know that those most affected financially as a direct result of COVID-19 are most likely to be people in low-skilled, poorly paid employment. The carers and caterers, those in the retail and services sector. Those who haven’t had the luxury of working from home, as I have in my little office-cum-spare bedroom.
The level of financial hardship since March is clearly demonstrated through the sharp increases in unemployment and new benefits claims.
Office for National Statistics figures reveal that 400,000 more families with children started claiming Universal Credit (UC) in April and May, meaning that 58% of all single parents and 10% of couple parents have enrolled for the benefit since the end of March. The figures showed that 5.6 million people were claiming UC, and with the government’s furlough scheme being scaled back, the problem is likely to get worse over coming months.
Aside from the financial impact on household incomes and associated risk of poverty and homelessness, the reduced income being seen by social landlords as a direct consequence of increasing rent arrears poses long-term risks to other activities, including of course investment in new homes for the future.
Thankfully the government put a hold on evictions for rent arrears during the worst of the pandemic, but with these restrictions lifted in England, the question I ask myself is how can we as a sector provide the right type of support to families struggling to pay their rent through no fault of their own, while protecting the financial viability of our businesses, continue to deliver excellent services and meet our longer-term ambitions for new housing provision?
Here in Welwyn Hatfield, despite seeing nearly 500 new UC cases since the beginning of March and more than 700 new arrears cases, our rapid response, strong engagement and flexible approach has helped to mitigate the effects on our tenants and the council’s income stream.
Despite the abrupt change in working methods brought about by lockdown, our team has worked tirelessly to prevent arrears spiralling out of control. Through the intensive support our income team provided during the pandemic, we have seen more than 1,400 households (representing more than 15% of our tenants) either clear or significantly reduce their arrears since March.
Our approach has been to develop a bespoke approach on a case-by-case basis, intensive out-bound calls to tenants at risk before arrears became a problem and increasing referrals to our tenancy support service, Citizens Advice and other voluntary agencies.
As well as the passion and drive of each and every team member, I think that part of this success rested upon the transformational changes within the team which took place prior to the pandemic, coupled with our wider corporate modernisation work which was already taking place across the council, including our clear commitment to more agile working.
Our aim is to focus on services delivered around the customer and not around the needs of the council. And this has without doubt reaped benefits during these unprecedented times.
The new specialist income team we set up two years ago is led by an innovative, team-focused manager who has instilled in his team a culture of collaboration and creativity. There is friendly competition within the team, and whenever I visit the team there is a real ‘buzz’! For anyone thinking that working in income management is dull, think again!
“Our aim is to focus on services delivered around the customer and not around the needs of the council”
In supporting tenants to meet their obligations for paying their rent, the team helped them sustain their tenancy and sort out their financial problems overall, leading to better quality of life all round. In doing so we have achieved continued low eviction rates, and this has in turn has reduced the number of potential homelessness cases in our borough.
When asked, my team attributes their success to excellent partnerships, both within and outside of the council, close working with Department for Work and Pensions in sorting out benefits claims, effective use of analytics and, most importantly, embracing the team’s collective motivation, drive and dedication to succeed.
I know that this great work is happening all around the country, and although we are indeed in hard times we can be proud of the part we are all playing to support our most vulnerable households get through.
Inside Housing - Comment - How we’re working to protect tenants struggling to pay rent through no fault of their own