Rethinking tenancy sustainment

2022 marked eighty years since the Beveridge Act. Yet, despite so many good intentions, reports following the death of two year old little boy Awaab Ishak who was living in a damp and mould filled home, provide a sobering reminder of the frailties of the social housing system. This case highlights the responsibility that landlords have for sustaining tenancies through housing standards and repair, as well as fundamental questions around conduct and duty.

Social landlords would describe tenancy sustainment as the heart of their mission. As a key performance indicator, tenancy failure has been traditionally measured through eviction, abandonment, or a tenancy ending within its first year. The question is, if a tenant is paying the rent but cannot afford to heat their homes, manage damp, or put food on the table, can that tenancy be described as sustained? More importantly, how do landlords identify situations that have become unmanageable before a tenancy breaks down? These questions underpin the research taking place in the Holding onto Home study. This blog explores the enormity of the challenge that landlords have in sustaining tenancies within the current economic climate, through existing research and analysis.

Poverty and destitution

To illustrate the current experience of poverty for households, many of whom live in social housing, a food bank in Birmingham recently reported that 80 percent of their current users had never accessed a food bank before and were largely in employment. While operating in one of the most deprived wards in the country, this finding reflects a nationwide emerging picture about the impact of the cost of living crisis, and an increase in poverty across other measures and income groups. The first emerging insights briefing from our Holding onto Home project demonstrated the harsh realities faced by low income tenants through interviews with key stakeholders across England. They told us about people who ‘don’t put heating on in the winter. They can’t afford to… They probably have one meal a day.’ This reflects some of what Fitzpatrick and colleagues have measured as destitution,  which has increased among UK households by around 35 percent between 2017 and 2019. The Resolution Foundation have also reported a projected increase in absolute poverty from 17 percent to 23 percent between 2020-21 to 2022-23, the worst two year increase on record.

Child Poverty Action Group analysis has confirmed reports from the social housing sector stakeholders we interviewed, that larger families and single parent families are among the hardest hit by rising food and energy bills, as well as unpaid carers who are also experiencing rising levels of debt. In spite of the government’s fuel rebate, a University of York study predicted that 3 out of 4 households nationally would fall into fuel poverty by January 2023, a figure that rises to 80.5 percent in the Yorkshire and Humber Region. We also know that around one in four children are living in relative poverty after housing costs, with 50 percent of those children living in single parent households.

Tipping Points

As our first briefing highlights, a tipping point has been reached for many households who were already just about getting by. Yet, while recent increases in the cost of living have undoubtedly created new levels of hardship, earlier reports show that households have struggled with deficit or negative budgets, where incomes fall below overall household costs. Analysis from Citizens Advice Stoke on Trent shows that between 2006/7-  2016/7, there had already been a significant growth in requests for help from people with priority debts (mortgage, rent, utilities, etc). By 2020, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) found that around 10.7 million UK households had ‘low financial resilience’, which means that they could not withstand a £50 reduction in monthly income. The recent Deep Poverty study of households in Leeds has explored the extent of difficulty faced by households across the city, forcing many people to high interest lenders in order to meet basic living costs.

The Nuffield Foundation-funded Covid Realities project (continuing as Changing Realities) and other national studies from Step Change have demonstrated how benefit deductions for advanced UC payments, overpayments and other charges such as council tax not only push households into greater levels of poverty but also adversely impact the mental health of those affected.  Our interviews echoed the hostile environment’ created by the benefits system, actively pushing households into poverty. One national stakeholder reported that “nearly all – basically, UC recipients that were surveyed that had a deduction are going without essentials.”  

Modelling a different future

The Holding onto Home study is as much about identifying new ways of working and solutions as it is about highlighting these critical challenges. In Going freestyle: what happens when the rule book is taken away, a group of 20 social landlords have shared how they responded to the pandemic and supported tenants to sustain their tenancies within a new operating environment. Some landlords allowed tenants to pay less than their rent and not pay towards arrears until particularly difficult financial situations had eased. Another landlord allowed tenants to under and overpay their rent at different times of the year, an approach also celebrated by Hyde Group. This flexible and responsive approach to rent payment also extends to communications and organisational culture. Examples included switching off standard arrears letters and communicating by phone, bringing offers of help to the fore rather than opening conversations with arrears, and being sensitive to challenging moments by offering other opportunities to discuss arrears or related issues.  As highlighted by these participating landlords, being mindful of the emotional impact of debt and reframing the conversation with tenants really matters.

Understanding the impact of differing approaches taken by landlords who are aiming to offer a more tailored approach, or even apply more radical practices, is something that our Holding onto Home study seeks to uncover through in-depth work with four case study landlords across England: whg (Walsall Housing Group), Stockport Homes, Southern Housing,  and East Riding of Yorkshire Council.  

Several providers in the Going freestyle report also celebrated the technology that had enabled improvements in customer service. However, as social landlords have progressively expanded digital service provision and particularly since the pandemic, we must acknowledge the rise in digital poverty as households struggle to afford the cost of internet and mobile data services.

Housing providers among other public and third sector organisations must also respond to worsening tenant health and wellbeing, which could be the cause or consequence of tenancies breaking down. This is particularly evident in reports of people cancelling care services because they cannot afford care charges, and other reports of people choosing between heating or cooking and using critical equipment such as ventilators or wheelchairs. Given that 54 percent of household members in the social rented sector are reported as having a disability or long-term illness, meaningful integration of housing into local health and social care systems is crucial. A positive development, therefore,  was last year’s Health and Care Act 2022, which formally positioned healthcare as part of partnership and collaborative working at the local level. Integrated Care Systems bring together local government, voluntary and community and social enterprise sectors, the NHS and others to develop healthcare strategy in their area. Crucially, this includes social landlords. At such an early stage, it remains to be seen how social landlords are able to influence and act as partners in these new local systems. Our research provides opportunity to contribute to knowledge in this area.

Taking up the challenge

It is clear that the role of social landlords in supporting tenants to remain in their homes is more complex and difficult than ever. The Holding onto Home research team have commenced fieldwork with our four social landlord case studies, starting with strategic and operational staff and moving on to tenant interviews. We will be sharing insights from practitioner interviews in the spring. 

Already, we have heard about the staggering level of challenge and complexity that our participating landlords and their tenants are facing within the current economic environment. We have also heard about the ways that organisations have enhanced and developed their roles within local and national welfare infrastructures. It is our hope that through this research we raise greater awareness of the ways that social landlords are responding to their growing responsibility for enabling tenants to remain in their homes, so that their work is sufficiently supported by local and national policy making, and so that some of the best solutions to these challenges are shared among the practitioner community.

Author: Emma Bimpson

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