Supporting our residents to make ends meet
Since lockdown, the landscape in the income service is very different.
We’ve taken thousands of calls from worried residents, supporting more than 10,000 people by giving advice and helping them claim benefits, as well as seeing 2,500 residents move onto Universal Credit (UC). We continue to take a high volume of calls, but new UC claims have gone back to pre-lockdown levels.
This was all at a time when it seemed like government was announcing new support and benefit schemes - and making changes to existing ones - almost daily. Keeping up to date with these and making sure the teams were giving the right advice was critical. Four months on and this remains critical - as some of these changes have started to be rolled back, beginning with the re-introduction of sanctions.
On top of all of these process changes, with just a day's notice, our teams had moved from being office-based or out and about visiting residents, to working remotely from their own homes - with no visits to residents taking place. This situation remains unchanged today, despite the fact that we have many more residents relying on benefits and support.
Our Tenancy Support team is in great demand, dealing with appeals and mandatory re-considerations as claims get put into payment. And some residents haven’t received what they were expecting or due.
More residents are in arrears - some who have never had arrears before. We’ve taken a more supportive and flexible approach with residents, looking at what they can afford - and having a lesser reliance on the use of enforcement if they are engaging with us and keeping to an agreement.
During the first months of lockdown we put in place access to an instant hardship fund to help those in the most difficult situations. We empowered our teams to give out supermarket vouchers without oodles of red tape and forms - the only criteria being that the resident was affected by the pandemic.
We also launched a customer money and digital offer at the start of July, which offers access to independent money advice, complementing the in-house advice service offered by our tenancy support service, as well as access to fuel vouchers, digital support and health and well-being services.
Our Communities team pulled together a directory of information on local support and help schemes which the Income team could easily access and signpost our residents to.
So, what have we learnt?
Residents were initially panicked and overwhelmed by the situation they found themselves in. We’ve spoken to some residents who we’ve never had cause to speak to before, let alone make a claim. We take heart from the fact they had confidence in us as their landlord to pick up the phone and ask us for help and support. We helped them to navigate their way through the maze of the benefit system to make sure they claimed what was right for them.
We also put in place measures so that residents phoning in could easily get through to the Income team and speak to someone who could help rather than getting stuck in the system. Nothing beats a conversation; we’ve hardly sent any letters since lockdown - but we do know we need to keep our resident communications and our own team communications fresh and up-to-date.
For those who can and want to pay we have a good range of payment channels. Our online customer portal has come into its own with more residents setting up access - finding this to be a useful way to view their rent account, check transactions and make payments online.
We've also noted that we need to proactively keep residents' contact details up to date as we’re relying more on phone, text and emails to communicate.
Of course, we couldn’t do all of this without the support of our in-house teams and our external partners and the majority of residents have been highly appreciative of this.
A great service
Working remotely from home hasn’t stopped us from providing a great service and we have well-trained and motivated teams who really put residents' needs at the heart of everything they do.
We’ve heard some heart-breaking stories over the last few months that have struck a chord with many of us and in the majority of cases we’ve been able to help, even if only in a small way. We’ve taken some comfort in that.
Finally, we do have to acknowledge that our arrears have increased significantly - but we’re in this for the long haul. With more residents potentially not returning to work, and a further spike in UC claims expected, we'll undoubtedly see arrears continue to rise. But we're also confident that we’ve put strong foundations in place to support our residents through these challenging times.