A robust tenancy sustainment service is vital for housing associations seeking to avoid evictions and the potential homelessness that can occur for tenants as a result.
The Covid pandemic was a catalyst for change in the way that the housing sector supported tenancy sustainment; many Homes for Cathy members have used the lessons learned during the pandemic to their advantage, adopting new ways of working to help tenants thrive in their homes. Homes for Cathy spoke to Bournville Village Trust’s (BVT) Income Services Manager, Gareth Sinnett, to explore how its Well Winter campaign has influenced the association’s tenancy sustainment work.
What was the impetus behind the launch of the Well Winter campaign?
The initial driver was a response to the impact of Covid; at the time, many of our residents were experiencing unemployment or accessing furlough and we wanted to find a practical, financial response to help them through any short-term financial pressures. While rent collection was a factor, encouraging residents to prioritise their rent went hand in hand with helping them in other areas, such as food vouchers and energy costs.
Unfortunately, the financial pressures that arose off the back of Covid haven’t relented. If anything, the situation has got worse; the support packages that were in place during that time have been withdrawn, including the £20 Universal Credit uplift, and we’re now facing high inflation and a major rise in the cost of living, which makes having a package like Well Winter even more important.
When residents are living hand to mouth and can’t see where their next meal is coming from, the ability to give that direct support makes a huge difference. It has also benefited our relationship with them; whilst we always provided additional financial support through provision of white goods and home essentials through a tenant support fund, we had not previously directly issued food and fuel vouchers to our tenants before we launched the campaign.
Has the campaign helped improve resident engagement?
Definitely – one of the most challenging parts of our role is to encourage residents to contact us when they foresee an issue with their rent. The biggest positive from the Well Winter campaign has been in developing that relationship further, to improve the trust between us. They understand that we’re not here just to enforce rent collection or issue letters, we’re genuinely here to help them thrive in their tenancies.
Historically, we haven’t had always engaged in the same way with residents who aren’t in arrears; the campaign has helped us understand that there are many residents who pay their rent and don’t ever reach out to us, even when they are in financial difficulty.
Residents self-refer for Well Winter funding via an online application form and once they have contacted us, we’re able to have conversations about where they’re struggling and whether we can offer them financial support or refer them elsewhere. In this way, we’re able to tackle any underlying issues before residents start falling behind on their rent. Ultimately, it’s far easier to resolve rent arrears before they occur.
Have you seen a large rise in the number of residents requiring tenancy support?
Caseload numbers ramped up during Covid and have remained high ever since. However, more notably, the work we have had to put in to get the same results has gone up exponentially. Not only has the complexity of the cases increased, but we’ve also adopted a more holistic approach to resolving some of our residents’ underlying issues, which takes time, energy and effort. Meanwhile, with the cost of living increasing, there is a lot more pressure on us as a social landlord to keep our homes occupied and support tenants to sustain their tenancies where previously residents may have been able to access additional support in other ways.
Has your approach to tenancy sustainment helped reduce evictions?
We always promote engagement over enforcement, so if a resident is able to engage and work with us, we will work with them to potentially prevent any enforcement action. Evictions are always a last resort; any eviction is effectively a failure for us as much as it is for the resident, so we try to exhaust every avenue, for example accessing Birmingham City Council’s homelessness prevention fund to reduce or clear debt on a resident’s account. In this way we’ve been able to keep evictions down to a minimum – just two in the past 12 months.
What tenancy support do you provide for new residents, for example those moving away from a situation of homelessness?
All new tenants will go through a financial assessment; this is about working with them to ensure that the tenancy is sustainable. This is supported though our financial inclusion team who will help them to maximise their benefits or seek additional financial support. The focus here is on providing that support from the very start. For new residents, we can offer support through our community fund for things like furniture and white goods, which are typically higher expenditures at the start of a tenancy and can lead to added financial pressures for tenants who have just moved into a property. All new tenants also receive a decorating voucher of up to £300 when they first move in to support them in making it their home. It’s about making sure that new residents can sustain that tenancy.
How do you engage with your more vulnerable residents and what support do you offer?
Encouraging engagement with vulnerable customers is key to good housing management. At BVT, we take our role very seriously and our entire front-line services are encouraged to work collaboratively to support our most vulnerable customers to sustain their tenancies. We also keep a record of our most vulnerable customers and can offer tailored support depending on their circumstances. Our income and housing management teams are skilled and knowledgeable and work together closely to case manage vulnerable residents’ ability to manage their rent account and sustain their tenancy, resolving any issues that arise. For example, we can refer to our Money Matters financial inclusion team who offer targeted support and advice around benefits and welfare payments.
We have also appointed an energy advisor in the past 12 months, a fixed term role funded through the Energy Redress Scheme, an initiative which supports vulnerable energy consumers by distributing voluntary payments made by energy companies that have breached Ofgem regulations. The advisor offers direct support to our residents on reducing their energy costs, for example by managing their boiler, radiators and thermostat, as well as advocating for residents in situations where they may have been overcharged by energy companies.
What advice would you give to other housing associations looking to enhance their tenancy sustainment offering?
At BVT, we’ve always prided ourselves on a tenant first approach but having the ability to offer the additional support of food vouchers or help with energy costs through the Well Winter campaign means that we can have a very different conversation with residents. Residents understand that they can speak to us and it’s really helped with engagement and building relationships. The real jewel in the crown has been that building trust and understanding with residents has gone a long way to achieving earlier intervention and ultimately managing rent accounts on a much lower level. Overall, it’s been a real success.
Bournville Village Trust (BVT) is a values-led charitable trust working to create and sustain communities where people can thrive. A registered social housing provider, BVT delivers a range of services across more than a dozen diverse and distinctive communities in Birmingham and Telford.