Jess McCabe

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The battle to sustain tenancies (Inside Housing)

Welfare reforms have made affording the rent much trickier for some tenants. So, what steps can landlords take to help out and fulfil their social mission? Jess McCabe takes a look.  Illustration by Grace Alton

From the bedroom tax to Universal Credit and the benefit cap, the world that social landlords and their tenants live in has changed dramatically in recent years.

As a result, it is not simply enough for many landlords to provide low-cost housing. If they are to fulfil their mission to house those on the lowest incomes, other approaches are needed with increasing urgency.

For tenants, even social rented homes in some areas are tricky to afford. And that affordability problem leads to stress from the potential threat of eviction and resultant struggle to find alternative housing.

Clearly, that is not good for them. And it is not good for landlords either, especially in terms of their social mission and also the potential costs from arrears that might get written off, repairs to vacant properties and settling new tenants.

Accent puts the figure at £4,000 per failed tenancy. Vale of Aylesbury Housing says £7,000. Bernicia names £8,000.

To solve this problem, social landlords are turning to tenancy sustainment: help for tenants struggling to stay in their homes.But as the sector grapples with different visions of its purpose, what is really being done, and why? Inside Housing has been talking to practitioners across the sector to find out.

Almost every landlord that does tenancy sustainment says roughly the same thing about why. “It’s dual purpose – it’s business sense and it aligns with our values,” Matt Corbett, director of the L&Q Foundation, puts it.

The precise balance between saving money and serving a social purpose does vary from landlord to landlord, and influences how and which projects are funded.

For most, this work is about more than making sure that tenants pay the rent. As Suki Jandu, group customer experience director at Futures Housing, says: “We are trying to go beyond just helping our tenants prioritise their debts. [They could be paying rent but] their existence could still be quite a meagre one.”

“It’s dual purpose – it’s business sense and aligns with our values.” – Matt Corbett, L&Q Foundation

Torus Homes is a particularly interesting case of a landlord seeing the value of this work, because the organisation is formed of a partnership between two associations with different approaches: Helena Homes in Merseyside, which had a tenancy sustainment running for four years, and Golden Gates Housing Trust (GGHT) in Warrington, which didn’t have a dedicated service but gave housing officers smaller patches in the expectation that they would cover some of this work.

Torus took the decision to apply Helena’s model to GGHT. “On lettings now, people are identified as being potentially at risk, [if they’ve] only just made it through the affordability check, [come from] supported housing or a different background,” says Gill Healey, sustainable communities director at Torus. In response to a high number of tenancies failing within the first 12 months, these cases are now referred straight to a tenancy sustainment officer.

For many landlords, tenancy sustainment officers will be called in as a step before eviction, or when arrears are flagged. “Before we go to court [the tenant] would always be referred to the intensive housing management team,” says Mel Baynes, assistant director of care and support at Bernicia. The team thinks it averted the eviction of 150 tenants last year.

Tenancy sustainment covers everything from tiny interventions like changing the way an arrears letter is worded (see box: Trial and testing), right the way up to intensive help for rough sleepers to learn how to do the food shop and how much to set aside for the electricity bill.

But help with navigating the benefits system and getting a job are the most common. Landlords often track success in terms of pounds of extra benefits in tenants’ pockets – a boost to them and the local economy. South Liverpool Homes (SHL), to give one example, puts this figure at £1.6m.

UNFURNISHED PROBLEMS

One major problem causing new tenancies to fail is lack of money for furniture, flooring and curtains. Local support payments from local authorities are limited, and some councils even tie the funding to accepting a move out of the area.

“A number of our new build properties… we have a wonderful property from an external point of view, [but tenants] haven’t got carpets, curtains, flooring,” says Ian Silver, director of housing and community services at Vale of Aylesbury Housing. (The association runs a ‘home starter fund’ of around £50,000 a year, from which new tenants can apply for white goods and furniture up to a value of £2,000.) A lack of these basics is setting tenants up to fail, as they end up borrowing to buy them and then getting behind on rent.

But this is especially true of vulnerable tenants, such as those that Kathleen Sims has worked with as rough sleeper services development manager at homelessness charity St Mungo’s.

“Moving in, nine times out of 10 they are unfurnished and generally uncarpeted. Carpets and curtains are the main thing we end up paying for,” she says.

“The thing I’m really passionate about… you can pick out the crack houses straight away – they’re the ones that put newspapers or some sort of bizarre thing in your window. If you’re a vulnerable person [and you don’t have curtains], you’re an easy target. People will see and take over the flat.”

This also highlights the risky situations that tenancy sustainment officers face – often with low pay (a search brings up pay rates as low as £17,000 for these jobs).

Ms Sims explains: “There are situations where you go into properties not realising they’ve been taken over. The client won’t necessarily be brave enough to tell you at the door. As you’re walking around, your eyes are going everywhere. You’re making sure you know your exit routes.”

Many landlords have set up teams within the past five years, and work has generally ramped up as they have responded to changes that adversely impact tenants – and balance sheets.

Shaun Finegan, regional housing director for the North at Accent, which set up its 10-person sustainment team five years ago, describes this as “getting alongside our customers who’ve been through the mill a bit with austerity”.

“We knew we couldn’t sit back and do nothing.” – David Smith, First Choice Homes Oldham (FCHO)

As a pilot area for Universal Credit, First Choice Homes Oldham (FCHO) is a good example of how these strands come together. FCHO has seen its rent collection rate slump from traditional levels of 100%, to about 75% since the introduction of Universal Credit. But with a mission statement of “improving lives in Oldham”, this affects more than just its bottom line.

David Smith, customer first director at the 12,000-home landlord, puts it bluntly: “We are one of the poorest boroughs in the country however you look at it. We know that a lot of our customers [are affected by] unemployment, low education, low aspiration. Welfare reform impacted massively on those customers, and particularly the introduction of Universal Credit.

“We knew we couldn’t sit back and do nothing; our own income stream would be massively affected.”

FCHO also had many large families living in its homes hit by the welfare cap. “In reality for those large families, they were going to have to earn virtually twice the borough average to stay where they were. The families felt trapped,” Mr Smith says, adding that they would struggle to earn their way out of the situation they’d been left in.

A particular problem has been tenants in insecure employment for short bursts of time, who have been hit by having to apply and reapply for Universal Credit. So, FCHO set up a project aimed at getting tenants into sustainable work.

“A particular problem has been tenants in insecure employment for short bursts of time”

Gemma Chauhan is an employment support advisor at FCHO. She works with about 40 to 45 customers at any one time, with the aim of getting eight into sustainable employment a month. “Some people require support with all the journey, some customers need a boost of confidence with interview prep. Or advice on different jobs they could benefit from,” she says.

About half the customers who work with FCHO end up in employment within 12 months. The landlord has hired 29 directly.

However, tenancy sustainment work goes well beyond measures for tenants with not enough money coming in.

Liverty in the South West has a team of 12 officers, set up seven years ago, with a free rein to work out what actions are needed to help tenants.

TRIAL AND TESTING

The Housing Associations’ Charitable Trust (HACT) is running a series of randomised control trials on various types of tenancy sustainment measures.

Hyde Housing took part in the first trial for three months.

The landlord used behavioural science to rewrite the letter it sends to tenants facing court action due to arrears. The new letter was shorter, with a clearer call to engage with support services.

The results, so far unpublished, did find more engagement: of the 123 tenants sent the new letter, 15.2% engaged with support services within 28 days, compared to 4.9% who received the old letter.

Vicky James, tenancy sustainment service lead at the 36,000-home association, explains: “We walk into the property and talk to them and find out what’s going on and whatever it is, we deal with it.”

Although most tenants are referred because they are falling into arrears, Ms James says that “debt is just a symptom of something else going on in that family”. That could be substance abuse, a family breakdown, hoarding or mental health issues.

The team had 969 referrals in 2017/18, of which 566 were actively supported.

Some may just need help filling in a form; others may need ongoing support, especially as it gets harder to access help with mental health and learning disabilities through the local authority.

“Many landlords struggle to do the work they’d like to with tenants before they move in, because of the speed at which the choice-based lettings system works”

On the flip side of these efforts to support tenants to keep their homes, landlords have been introducing more stringent affordability checks.

Many landlords struggle to do the work they’d like to with tenants before they move in, because of the speed at which the choice-based lettings system works. This is one reason SLH has opted out, instead setting up a waiting list, with applicants moved up the list if they are in higher priority housing need. This allows the time to work with tenants to get ‘tenancy ready’.

“So when someone moves into their home they get every chance to stand on their own two feet,” says Claire Ryan, executive director of investment and assurance at SLH.

Yarlington is an interesting case of how a landlord’s thinking has evolved on requirements placed on new tenants. Five years ago, the 10,000-home association in Somerset controversially asked new tenants to sign up to ‘household ambition plans’ (HAPs), tying their tenancy to promises to, for example, seek work.

“What we don’t want is people moving in and failing,” Jim Bruckel, Yarlington

But after only a year, HAPs were abandoned. “What we learned from that process was we shouldn’t be so paternal in our approach,” explains Jim Bruckel, head of operations and customer experience at Yarlington.

Now, all new tenants sit down with a financial responsibility officer to work out their benefits. But the emphasis on compulsion has changed.

“What we don’t want is people moving in and failing,” says Mr Bruckel. “Social housing has been guilty of that – giving people a set of keys and saying ‘there you go’, leaving them to survive in their property.”

It is a point that seems to be increasingly at the heart of social landlords’ identities. As Ms Ryan puts it: “Our investment isn’t limited to the assets, it’s in our communities and in the people living in our homes.”

This story was originally published by Inside Housing

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