Making a property feel like a home for new tenants

Homes for Cathy Commitment 7 is to ‘ensure that properties offered to homeless people should be ready to move into’, a pledge that recognises that a home is not just bricks and mortar, but a place of comfort and safety where people who have experienced homelessness can thrive.  Homes for Cathy spoke to Sanctuary Operations Manager, Ben Tranter and Neighbourhood Partnership Manager, Melanie King, to find out about the housing association’s innovative ‘Welcome Home’ project, which is part of its wider ‘customer-first’ approach. The project provides new tenants with an Argos voucher up to the value of £500, ensuring customers start a tenancy with the household essentials they need to make a property feel like home. 

How did the Welcome Home scheme come about?

MK: I come from a housing background and was a housing officer for 17 years.  We’ve all experienced signing up a new customer and standing with them in an empty property and all they have is a carrier bag full of possessions.  For me and my colleague who developed the scheme, it was something very close to our hearts, as we had seen people come to us in that situation, who had previously been homeless or fled domestic violence with nothing. 

In setting up the scheme, we wanted to be able to provide new customers moving into a Sanctuary property with the household items they need in the first week of their tenancy.  We ran an initial pilot with Argos, whereby we offered people a pack of furniture and other items we thought they would need to start their tenancy, such as bedding, towels, a microwave, kettle, toaster, crockery and cutlery, a microwave cooking set, rubbish bin and a bucket and mop.  However, we found there were always items that weren’t in stock or had to be collected in store, which proved difficult for people without a car.

We learned from that initial pilot and decided that we should give new customers the choice of what they want to buy and what they feel is important for them to be able to move into their property.  We now provide an Argos voucher on the day a new customer signs up and it’s up to them how they spend it. Currently, we offer £400 of vouchers for a single person, £450 for a couple and £500 for a family.

BT: It’s about the principle of trusting customers to know what it is they need, rather than us telling them what they need.  It also gives us flexibility in that we can use the voucher scheme in combination with other services that are already out there, such as charities and other support mechanisms.  Colleagues also have access to our own interactive map of the external support services across our localities, which they can signpost customers to.

How are new tenants referred to the scheme?

BT: It starts at the point of the tenancy offer, when our lettings officers will have an initial conversation with customers to find out more about the situation they have come from and what they are bringing with them in terms of furniture and household items.  If a lettings officer has concerns that a new customer may be moving in with nothing and has no facility to get anything, they will then refer to the relevant housing officer.  During the property viewing, the housing officer will have a secondary conversation to understand what the customer will be moving in with and will decide whether they need the support of the voucher scheme.  It’s very much a feeling and a conversation.

MK: It’s very flexible – ultimately, we’re giving our housing officers another tool in their toolkit to support new customers to succeed in their tenancy.

How is the scheme funded?

BT: Our procurement colleagues and social value development officer have worked hard to develop relationships with suppliers to ensure we can build social value into contracts, and we were fortunate that one of our big supply chain partners agreed to wholly fund the scheme.  We have secured a pot of funding for the initial scheme but we’re hopeful that if we can demonstrate that there is an ongoing need and that the scheme is making a difference, we’ll be able to convince our supplier to continue to support it.

MK: We know that many of our suppliers have their own charitable objectives but are not always able to support a charity themselves, as they’re not operating in the right arena.  Partnering with an organisation like Sanctuary – where we have access to different types of services and skills – means they can find projects that have a good fit with their organisation and allow them to fulfil their charitable aims.  We’re also fortunate in that Sanctuary is keen to support innovation and encourages colleagues to use their initiative to develop projects such as this. 

What are the benefits of the scheme in terms of tenancy sustainment?

MK: Customers coming from a homelessness situation or sofa surfing can have a lot of other issues going on, and sometimes can sign up for a property and not move in.  With the Welcome Home scheme, we can offer people a home rather than a house; not only does it mean there’s one less thing for new customers to worry about, but it also helps reduce the likelihood of abandonments and the costs and issues associated with void properties. 

More importantly, the scheme helps us to make a connection and build a positive relationship with customers, which makes it far easier for them to approach us if they have a problem in the future, for example with their rent.

BT: It’s about the customer having confidence and trust in us.  As a landlord, we’re often seen as an authority figure, particularly by customers who have been street homeless; sometimes this can scare them, and they can pull away.  The scheme breaks down those barriers and helps them understand that we’re here to support them. This is more vital than ever as, sadly, we are seeing more and more people in need of support due to the impact of the cost-of-living crisis.

Sanctuary owns and manages more than 116,000 homes, making it one of the largest housing associations in the country. A not-for-profit housing association, its mission is to build affordable homes and sustainable communities where people choose to live.

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