Culture shift key to homelessness prevention

A founding member of the Homes for Cathy group, Broadland adopted the Homes for Cathy commitments in 2018, with backing from its Board.  Homes for Cathy spoke to Broadland’s senior local delivery manager, Katie Docherty, to explore how the commitments have driven a culture shift in its housing operations.   

The Homes for Cathy commitments to end homelessness touch on every aspect of housing associations’ work, not just Care & Supported Housing. How did the adopting the commitments impact on your general needs housing operations?

The wording of Commitment 4 – “to not make any tenant seeking to prevent their homelessness, homeless” – was important and one of the most controversial areas for us when we became part of Homes for Cathy.  Without the threat of eviction, would tenants pay their rent?

Our intention was to flip things on their head, so that in situations where tenants wanted to prevent their homelessness, and we were doing everything we could around rent arrears, eviction would not be the end goal.  Instead, our aim was around tenancy sustainment, thereby avoiding all the costs of eviction and all the staff input required in terms of having to go to court. 

We wanted to use that staff input in a more positive way, by supporting tenants to use resources such as our welfare benefits advisor and tenancy support team, and to work with our income officers around budgeting.  We now advise tenants that, if they are covering their full rent, we won’t let their arrears increase and we agree a plan for them to pay off the arrears in instalments, an approach which has worked well. 

Thinking of the person has become the centre of the ‘process’; rather than contacting tenants to threaten eviction for arrears, we surveyed them to find out how they were feeling, what triggered them around their rent arrears.  Training around nudge theory helped us better understand what it meant to receive a brown envelope through the post and the impact of the wording of arrears letters.  

We also looked at case studies which had gone to eviction and used empathy maps to explore the touchpoints where tenants had contacted us, what that experience had been like, what that person would have felt on receiving their first letter about rent arrears and on receiving a final warning letter, what the outside factors would have been.  This helped give us a complete picture of why someone wouldn’t pay their rent. 

Our understanding of the drivers behind rent arrears was also backed up in data; we used the business intelligence platform Power BI to look at the demographics of people who were in rent arrears – including age, ethnic origin, disabilities such as mental health, children or no children, working or not – cross-referencing this with who was most likely not to be able to pay their rent, and who was most likely not to pay their rent at certain times, such as Christmas.  Armed with that data, we were able to plan targeted ‘preventative’ communications before tenants had even got into rent arrears.  For example, we had historical cases who had always missed payments in December or January, so would make a phone call in November to see how they were planning to pay their rent. 

It was a massive culture shift away from the whole process of warning letters and pre-court protocol that was so set in colleagues’ minds as how rent is collected.  It’s all about looking at the whole person.  Fortunately, this culture change coincided with Broadland creating a specialist income team separate to neighbourhood management, which really helped give them a sense of direction. 

Ultimately it costs a lot to evict someone, not to mention the ongoing voids costs of an empty property.  We calculated that the average cost of an eviction is between £8,500 and £11,900.  Since 2018, we have reduced evictions for rent arrears from 18 households to three households, in both 2019/20 and 2020/21, making annual savings of between £75,000 and £178,000.  Over the same period, we have sustained our level of arrears.

How has your approach to tenancy sustainment changed over time?

Rather than working towards eviction, our ethos is let’s work to get this person to stay in their tenancy and how can we achieve that?  The more we have built relationships with tenants, the easier it has become, because we have got to know the people who we need to contact and the people who just need an occasional check in by text. 

We’re having conversations every day with people; our rent officers have the freedom to say ‘What’s going on here?  Your home is the basis for everything, let’s try to figure out why you’re behind on your rent and is there anything we can do to help you find ways to budget so that you can pay your rent’.  At the end of the day, there’s not a high percentage of people who wake up in the morning and say I don’t care about paying my rent and I don’t want to live here anyway.

In terms of staff turnover, how do you ensure that person-centred culture remains embedded at Broadland?

We’ve had new staff members who have found the approach alien, but they can still see the benefits.  The income team has a great culture and a team leader who believes in our ethos and wants to achieve the commitment around not making tenants homeless who want to prevent their homelessness, which is important.  The team also has regular meetings where they support each other, and this helps to keep that consistency and belief in what they’re trying to achieve alive.  Our welfare benefits officer sits within the income team so he’s also part of that solution. 

What has been the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on how you engage with tenants?

Times are very difficult; people are choosing between heating and eating.  For us, it’s about re-examining the data, identifying those tenants on the lowest incomes or who are on the borderline, perhaps working a few hours but still receiving some housing costs, who therefore don’t have access to other grants and benefits, and working proactively with them. 

Commitment 2 is about flexible allocations and eligibility policies that allow individual applicants’ circumstances and history to be considered.  What changes has Broadland implemented to deliver this?

Essentially, the view at Broadland is that if the person can’t afford social housing rent, they’re not going to be able to afford to rent anywhere else, so we don’t turn anyone down based on affordability.  However, we still carry out an income and expenditure check with applicants.  If their projected expenditure is minus disposable income, the applicant will be referred to a team leader, so the appropriate support can be put in place. 

For example, Broadland has a welfare benefits advisor and tenancy support team to which applicants are referred if we consider they’re not maximising the welfare payments they are entitled to.  If the applicant is already receiving the benefits they’re eligible for, we will then go through the tenancy support route to explore if it’s a budgeting matter or if the team can gain access to any other support. 

We have a very low refusal rate for applicants; we had three refusals in total last year.  Typically, refusals will be around anti-social behaviour – for example if the area has suffered anti-social behaviour, we might choose not to house someone there who has a history of ASB.

By carrying out an affordability assessment, we can discuss budgeting and ask open-ended questions to establish any other support needs.  For example, if the applicant has just moved into the area, our neighbourhood officers might put them in touch with Men’s Sheds or the Norwich City community football scheme.  We want to make new tenants aware that we’re not just a bricks and mortar housing association there to collect rent – we’re part of the community and we have a wider offer.  A lot of this is done as part of a four week visit or call, so new tenants have had time to settle in.

How does Broadland approach Commitment 7 ‘To ensure that properties offered to homeless people should be ready to move into’?

We identified that there are some great grant schemes and charities out there who will give white goods – nine times out of ten we are able to source a fridge or a cooker for a tenant.  My view is that one of the key things that makes a property feel like a home are curtains or blinds at the windows rather than big bags or duvets – it helps tenants feel safe and secure, gives them privacy and means there’s no outward sign for neighbours to make a judgement, so they begin their tenancy feeling like they are part of the community. 

Unfortunately, there aren’t many grants available for curtains and blinds.  It’s the same for carpets – if you just have concrete on your floor or bits of carpet or a rug here and there, it’s not homely.  It’s those day-to-day things that can chip away at someone on top of all the other pressures that they might already have and can have a big impact.  We therefore have a specific budget set aside for Commitment 7 and we tend to use it for curtains and flooring to make the property feel like a home.  We don’t have an application form for this; it’s used specifically for tenants who have come from a homelessness background, which is the only criteria, whether it be a hostel, temporary accommodation or rough sleeping. 

We also try to ensure flooring and carpets are fitted before the tenant moves in, so the property feels like home from the beginning.  We probably do one of these a month when it feels like it’s needed.  It’s a relatively small budget but it does mean a lot to the people concerned.

Tackling homelessness has been part of Broadland Housing’s DNA since the association formed in 1963, around the time of the TV film Cathy Come Home.  Today Broadland provides more than 5,000 quality homes across Norfolk and north Suffolk, including sheltered housing and housing with care homes.

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