Universal Credit and the parent-child relationship

Cath Davies writes:

There are so many facts and figures about Universal Credit going around that I find myself scanning the headlines and thinking that it’s all more of the same.

Today, I have seen some data from First Choice Homes Oldham (one of the first associations to ‘go live’ under Universal Credit in July 2014) that didn’t seem to fit into the category of, “more of the same”.

Some of the statistics made alarming reading:

1. 74% of tenants had not been offered personal budgeting support by the DWP.

2. 18% of tenants had taken out a pay day loan to bridge the gap from making a Universal Credit claim to receiving payment.

3. 48% of tenants did not know they could apply for an advance payment for Universal Credit.

4. 22% of tenants said that the job centre had not informed them that their rent needed to be paid out of their Universal Credit.

One of the recurring themes of feedback from staff about speaking with tenants about Universal Credit is how little they (tenants) fully understand what Universal Credit is and how they will be affected by it. Some of the figures from First Choice Homes Oldham certainly bear that out. Clearly, tenants’ lack of understanding is not being helped by obvious opportunities being missed to give information – 22% of tenants said that the job centre had not informed them that their rent needed to be paid out of the Universal Credit, for example.

But this isn’t all about Universal Credit: one of the other figures given said that 19% of tenants did not name rent as a priority bill. (Food and fuel were given as the priorities.) Whilst it’s encouraging that 80% of tenants do see that rent is a priority bill, there is, clearly, work to be done with nearly one fifth of tenants whose tenancies may be at risk if they would pay for food or fuel before the roof over their head.

As a sector, we may be about to reap what we have sown for so many years: we’ve taken responsibility for completing the Housing Benefit form and, often, for taking it off the claimant so that we can submit it for them.

The age of the parent-child, landlord-tenant relationship has gone. As with all parent-child relationships, they don’t become adult-adult relationships overnight and so we have to work with our tenants to provide support mechanisms and services that will facilitate the transition.

We also need to recognise that the culture of many organisations will  need to change in order to develop this new relationship with tenants. For example, Midland Heart has recognised that there is a common trait of “rescuing” tenants and solving problems. As a consequence, it has trained staff to become “trusted advisers”, looking to engender a more mutual relationship with their tenants.

What will it look like in 2020?
A few months ago, I did an exercise with an organisation to get them to think what their organisation and what service provision might look like in 2020. Here are some of the thoughts that came out of that session, along with ideas from other landlords that I’ve talked with in recent months:

1. A far greater knowledge about tenants than is commonly currently held. This goes way beyond CORE data. For example, do they have a transactional bank account and know how to use it? Do they have internet access and feel confident to use it to make a claim for Universal Credit? Are they looking for advice from their landlord on training or employment skills?

2.  I can’t think of any organisation I’ve worked with in the last year that has told me that their current IT systems are adequate for recording this kind of data or for being able to produce reports using this data. As many organisations are preparing themselves to increase time spent in collecting the rent, surely they should be looking to rely more on modern and efficient IT systems that are adequate for the new task ahead.

3. Information gleaned both pre-tenancy and then during the tenancy should be used as, effectively, a risk assessment that would allow a landlord to tailor and target services.

4. Is the role of a social landlord to provide accommodation AND support? Applicants who have no support needs (support into training or employment or assistance with money and budgeting etc) would not be eligible for social housing. Applicants who are rehoused, would be rehoused with a support plan/”ambition plan” in place and when that plan had been realised they would be assisted to move on into alternative accommodation.

Certainly, the last idea is a radical one: it came from a landlord who had asked me to speak with a number of staff to check with them what they saw their contribution being to creating sustainable tenancies. The conversations were wide-ranging and it was exciting to hear staff voicing such ideas: not, necessarily, for that idea itself but for the fact that it shows an ability to think and have an appetite for the fact that business as usual in 2020 might not be the same as business as usual in 2014. In that instance, the conversations around sustainable tenancies enabled staff to think about what happens at the end of the fixed-term tenancy and what is the role of the landlord and the tenant during that fixed term.

There, I’ve started off at Universal Credit and have ended up at sustainable tenancies: may be that’s no great surprise as what is this all about if not about creating tenancies that can be sustained – however that might be defined?

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