A picture paints a thousand words it is said. This post is 2000 words yet only needs one picture to describe the realisation of the bedroom tax and other welfare reforms for social landlords.
Actually reader I mislead you slightly as most social landlords haven’t yet got to the stage of realising just what the welfare reforms mean to them and their business and as we are told only 20% of the welfare reforms have started so there are 4 times more still to come!
Yesterday I released a blog advocating that tenants should unleash the power they have and within that they should sue landlords for their part in the bedroom tax decision making sham. As you can imagine I received emails and other correspondence from fellow housing professionals who were outraged at this with the general line being Joe has finally flipped or ‘gone native’ (interesting in itself that such a comment be made!) and what the hell are you doing etc.
The intent was deliberate to wake social landlords and housing professionals out of the naive slumber they are in and to stop acquiescing to the bedroom tax and other welfare reform policy which I strongly maintain is the status quo and also maintain that not radically changing will see social housing cease to exist.
That doesn’t mean I don’t think tenants should not sue their landlords, they should and have just cause to do so as landlords chose to give data to councils when they had no obligation to so so, much of it false that has led to tenants having the life changing bedroom tax imposed on them.
Social landlords need to think.
I’ll say that again social landlords need to think. Not to think again or think differently they need to think period (excuse the ugly Americanism) as to date all the evidence is that they have not thought at all.
One of the first issues they need to think upon is the power tenants have. Historically tenants have had next to no power at all and even when ‘tenant participation’ became the latest buzzword in the late 1990s and early 2000’s landlords (then mainly councils) still had to be threatened with 50% of their HIP funding being withheld unless they could prove that tenants participated or were ‘involved’ (involvement being a loose term here!) You see why I said in my opening paragraph how interesting it was that housing professionals thought I had ‘gone native’ with my tenant should sue landlords post as this shows that the them and us situation still prevails within housing professionals mentality!
Yet the welfare reforms move social housing from being about bricks and mortar to being about people and how these people (tenants) interact with the welfare system – a radical change to what has gone before which social landlords still don’t get. Housing Benefit payments will go direct to the social tenant shortly – the direct payments reform – and that changes everything.
In simple terms the tenant is not only to have to become responsible for the payment of rent, they soon become IN CONTROL of the payment of rent.
That is a huge change and one that will shake social housing and especially the landlord and tenant interaction to the core. In the landlord tenant relationship it means that the tenant does hold the aces and does have the ‘power’ and what are social landlords doing to prepare for this massive change? They are managing to anger the tenant more and more by appearing to acquiesce to the welfare reforms such as the bedroom tax and also give the perception that they do not stand four-square behind the tenant. That is not just a high risk strategy; it is the strategy of the buffoon and business incompetent and reveals just how little social landlords have thought through this strategy.
Nobody knows when direct payments will go live and that is to do with the unreadiness of Universal Credit of which it is part. What we do know is that it will be delayed as all UC elements are getting delay upon delay. Yet that presents even more problems for landlords as it gives them more time to anger tenants with repeated examples of their ‘complicity’ in the welfare reforms and especially the bedroom tax. It gives tenants more time to feel (rightly) aggrieved at landlords and build up a greater likelihood of tenants de-prioritising the payment of rent when direct payment comes in and they gain control and power.
Everybody knows that a tenant faced with the choice of putting food on the table or heating or buying their children new school shoes or paying rent will choose not to pay rent or at least full rent. That is human nature and IDS and his DWP buffoons can talk all they want about behavioural change and nudge theory and it won’t affect that simplistic and valid point one iota. The direct payments welfare reform policy obviates an increase in rent arrears in simple terms.
The role of landlords now ahead of the direct payments introduction has to be don’t piss tenants off more than you have to. It has to be one of make the tenants at least perceive we are doing all we can to (a) help the tenant and (b) challenge the bedroom tax. Yet landlords are doing the exact opposite and what this will mean is that tenants will de-prioritise the payment of rent even more and that rent arrears are bound to increase!
It may read as perverse but advocating tenants sue landlords over their complicity in the bedroom tax – and remember landlords had no obligation to provide councils with any data whatsoever and simply chose to give it freely – is the rocket up the backsides that social landlords need. It also means that tenants do have the power and shortly will have huge power over landlords which will radically alter the landlord tenant relationship yet landlords are choosing to bury their heads in the sand over this and doing nothing in response to this significant change of operation in social housing.
Then we have monthly payments which sees the current weekly and/or fortnightly payment of welfare benefits to tenants become a payment just once a month. The ‘benefit tenant’ is already struggling to cope with weekly payments and many have zero money left after 5 or 6 days never mind 7 days. When this moves to payment once every 30 days the same ‘benefit tenants’ (two-thirds of all social landlord customers) will have no money left for the last week or more and that will have a huge impact on the payment of rent too.
How many more benefit tenants will seek loans to cover this shortfall and then pay back crippling interest on this – the Wonga et al option? That is a very simple example of what I mean by landlords NOT understanding what welfare reforms will do to their customers the tenants.
Even if not most landlords will know that tenants will believe they are meeting rent payment if they pay 4 weeks rent form their monthly UC benefits. Yet there are 4.33 weeks in every month and 4 weeks rent payment every month is just 48 weekly payments per year, 4 weeks short. Silly but pragmatic issues such as this are not prepared for by landlords except by scurrying round getting tenants to sign direct debits to avoid this. Yet how will tenants feel towards their landlords when DDs fail and they incur bank charges? Will the tenant blame the landlord? Without doubt they will and even blame the landlord when UC payments cock up just as HB and welfare benefit payments cock up now – a frighteningly regular occurrence!
The above are just a tiny percentage of foreseeable matters that will arise and I outline them to show just how radical the welfare reforms are to social housing. It is said that 80% of the welfare reforms have still to take place yet we see real poverty and real radical change, life-changing impacts from the first 20% such as the bedroom tax and the abolition of council tax benefit. Shortly we will have 5 times the level of impact when the other welfare ‘reforms’ kick in and yet landlords are moaning like hell over arrears just about this 20% so imagine what 5 times the changes will be like!
If that doesn’t shake social landlords out of their slumber what will? The welfare reform agenda IS a deliberate and overt attack on social housing as a model and necessitates a radical response from landlords. Yet as I said yesterday social landlords think painting a door red rather than blue is radical and as a sector social housing is innately ultra-conservative. Social landlords need a lot more than one rocket up their backsides to realise what is happening! An elephant going down a slalom track on a snowboard has more chance of changing course than social landlords yet the situation needs radical change and very quick change too, but that just won’t happen because of the ultra conservatism of social landlords and social housing as a sector.
Those landlords who think the proverbial has already hit the fan with just the bedroom tax are in for a very rude awakening indeed. Oh we are studying this and doing longitudinal research on the data social landlords may reply. Yes I agree this is needed and some of this is very good such as the Real Life Reform project but so much more immediate responses are also needed but are not being actioned, or worse not even considered.
Social landlords have an incredibly defeatist mindset of we are doing all we can. No, no no! They may want to believe that but they couldn’t be more wrong and they believe that so much they have become immune to any form of criticism however constructive – the Teflon syndrome. Yes raising awareness of credit unions and yes advising tenants of switching utility supplier and yes to helping (some) tenants achieve benefit maximisation are all good but so much more needs to be done and so much more quality as well as quantity is needed.
Time to move from looking at foreseeable problems with actual current problems that landlords are doing very little about.
Over the last 6 months or more I have spent at least one if not two evenings each week working with local grassroots groups that started out as anti bedroom tax groups but rapidly evolve into helping tenants deal with benefit caps and DHPs and appeals and JSA sanctions and ESA appeals and a whole host of other time consuming complex benefit issues.
What has become clear is that many frontline housing officers and even their welfare teams have a huge knowledge deficit in terms of welfare reform. Have you completed a nil income form or a GL24 form or other simple process for the tenant is met by silence and a quizzical look by housing staff, yet these are bread and butter issues that all housing staff at social landlords should have knowledge of but clearly do not. I have lost count of how many tenants have been told by housing staff to ‘appeal’ their DHP refusal when DHPs carry no right of appeal – one of numerous examples of poor welfare knowledge and bad advice given out frequently.
One large local landlord proudly boasts in its publicity material that its full time team of 5 welfare officers have helped tenants complete x number of DHP forms (note it does not say how many have been successful just how many helped to complete!) Yet one local grassroots group, Reclaim, has done more than this with 4 volunteers meeting just one afternoon and evening per week and with a huge success rate too. That is a stark comparison and the volunteer staff at Reclaim deal with some extraordinarily complex cases too and don’t cherry pick the easy cases or box tick as housing welfare teams in part have to do.
Landlords can’t be blamed for the significant reduction in external welfare advice teams that has seen the CABx and others be swamped of course or the fact that legal aid for welfare benefits has been stopped. Yet that does have consequence and massive impact for social tenants which landlords can’t pick up and haven’t done so and housing welfare teams simply don’t have the time to get involved with the many highly complex cases out there which are incredibly time consuming. There is a whole range of very complex welfare benefit situations that even the CABx and other welfare professionals don’t have the time to deal with, and the benefit changes are making these cases harder and harder to challenge as well and the ten-fold increase in JSA sanctions since the last election which automatically leads to HB being stopped make this so much worse.
That said these consequences and impacts were well flagged up and landlords have not responded to them and like it or not they need to as the JSA sanctions issue automatically stopping HB payments is a simple example of obvious concern and impact. In fact only last week one HA CEO told me JSA (dole) sanctions are the biggest problem they face in terms of arrears build up and that is not an isolated case. Yet do social landlords welfare staff have knowledge and training on sanctions and the new DWP benefits appeal processes which started 2 days ago? I strongly doubt that have had such training yet these are often the only places tenants can turn.
A nice graph for you on dole sanctions to illustrate the point! Oh and by the way DWP has just introduced a far tougher ‘claimant commitment’ that will see these sanction figures increase further than the ten-fold rise we have seen since the last election!
What the above very brief discussion highlights and demonstrates is that the welfare reforms have moved mainstream social housing from a ‘bricks and mortar’ operation to a people or person centred service and social landlords have not adapted to this at all in anything like the need they have to do.
Now put into that context the fact that I have yet to see one social landlords website advise tenants how to appeal the bedroom tax!
They will advise you on speaking to them (and if you don’t speak with them you must by default be non engaging as that it what landlords will tell the court when they seek to evict!) re taking in a lodger or changing electricity or gas suppliers and some even give low cost food recipes….yet not one advises tenants on appeals to the bedroom tax decisions!
The model of general needs social housing that existed prior to the bedroom tax has gone and social landlords and housing professionals need to radically alter their operations. Yet they still don’t see the need and still refuse point blank to see that social housing has moved from being about ‘bricks and mortar’ to being about ‘people.’ Social landlords have to rip up the rule book and seriously think about how to respond and everything they do now needs to be questioned. They need a radical response and everything needs to be on the agenda including the £325m they spend on anti social behaviour which results in social tenants getting a worse service than the private tenant – a long standing bugbear of mine which sees the police use housing staff as an excuse not to investigate leaving the social tenant worse off than all others. It really does need some radical thought and radical actions to address the radical nature of the welfare reforms. Yet the social landlords don’t even see that need let alone respond in kind such as is their “we have always done it this way” mentality!
In simple words landlords don’t just need one rocket up their backsides they need the entire range of explosives Wile E Coyote purchased from Acme Inc to blow up the Roadrunner…meep meep!