Do social landlords know what “customer” means? Don’t be silly!

I have written extensively about the bedroom tax for some time now. I started doing so because I very strongly support social housing and have worked within it for 20 years.  From January 2013 i began to write about it even more urgently and passionately because I began to see and hear the stress affected tenants were coming under and yes that was apparent and deeply concerning even a few months before it hit.

The bedroom tax policy in isolation and in the context of other welfare reforms of which 80% have still to arrive IS a direct attack on social housing and a direct attack on social landlords and of course on social tenants.  My own perhaps conceited view was this policy can’t be allowed to happen and even more so than it can’t work and the apparent ‘conceit’ is that I thought there must be a way to best it and my own at time pig-headedness believed I will find a way or ways.  If I was a Tory then ten time that level of stubbornness would see my name be Iain Duncan Smith or David Anthony Freud.

I have spoken intensively with social landlords, local government officers, councils and councillors and social tenants in that time.  My blogs have seen tenants all over the country email me with copies of what their council and landlord has said.  I get unsolicited phone calls and emails at least three times every week from TV and radio reporters and producer.  I get the same number of approaches from national, local and industry journalists.  I have spoken at two fairly local bedroom tax groups each week on average and every Friday I attend a drop in surgery at my local grassroots group Reclaim along with a regular band f at least 5 volunteers and often many more than this.  I have also spoken at seminars and workshops all over the country and at the end of this month I will begin training workshops all over th country.

It’s safe to say I know a bit about the bedroom tax and the bedroom tax is a pain in the arse.

However, an even bigger pain is the stress it gives to the ordinary people it affects with life-changing consequences.  A socially rented property is not a tin of beans or other commodity much as this coalition would wish; it is somebody’s home not just a house or flat and a home that the tenant has invested so much of their love, time, heart and soul into to make their home, the family home where you can sit on the armchair and stare off absently into space and picture your child picking themselves up from their crawling and start to take their first steps by holding onto the couch. Your home has all of those nursing home memories and you snap back into reality to remember that crawling child is bringing his children round on Sunday for a roast dinner and watch the grandchildren you adore be spoiled.

That for me is why the bedroom tax is still in the media spotlight and still regularly on the national TV news and I have never known a social housing story stay in the national spotlight for more than a day let alone the 9 months it has remained firmly there.

Yet that wistful look to the memory of their baby’s first steps I describe above is what I see whenever I am helping a tenant appeal the bedroom tax, get eviction cases adjourned and resolved, fill in a DHP, fill in an overnight carers form, help claim benefits they are entitled to but not receiving and a whole host of other hep they need to keep that memory a possibility of seeing regularly as the tenant should.  Years of working in supported housing and homeless means you can spot a sofa surfer by their NFA smell or a rough sleeper by the blackened pallor of their facial skin. Or which substances people are misusing by whether their eyes are pinned or not.  Yet the way to spot a bedroom tax affected tenant is to see that wistful look into blank space together with the sinking of their shoulders or the anger in their voice and resoluteness that this si their home and nobody dare take it from them.

The greatest descriptive authors and poets don’t have the articulation to describe the bedroom tax tenant and however wonderful the imagery they create in the most fertile mind you have to be there and see it in their faces to have an appreciation of what it is like for them.  Even then you can only sympathise and not truly empathise.

There are a number of problems with this.  Most tenants can’ think straight and nor should they be expected to given that often their life’s memories may some be taken away from them.  When they finally swallow their pride and seek help (which is not from their landlords who don’t see, don’t look for and don’t have the time or the knowledge to deal with the life-changing decisions tenants are having to make) you realise that this is not a tenant sticking their heads in the sand and avoiding the issues, it is tenants, ordinary people like you or I who are trying to find a way to get their heads out of their arses but can’t and all their usual places they could have turned to, such as CABx and welfare rights centres are closed or closing due to yet more cuts from this government not least legal aid being unavailable now for welfare benefit issues.  And please can we stop saying ‘austerity’ this is a fancy word for deliberate cuts deliberately targeted at the poorest in our society by those whose friends in the banks created this mess and who were bailed out by the taxpayer.

Of course social landlords don’t see it this way and that’s because they dont SEE tenants and will never see that wistful look into space.  Social landlords dont know how to deal with people as tenants have always been ‘units’ of income generation with a sop every now and again when the latest ‘big’ idea of hey lets form a tenants credit union or advise them how to switch utility suppliers and score some brownie points or other self-lauded scheme by social landlords.  That is extremely arrogant of ‘social’ landlords as it patronises the hell out of the tenant who responds with I’m on a gas and electric meter and can’t bloody switch and the best deals have no access for the social tenant. Oh and by the way you had it installed so you should bloody well know that!

If you work in or are interested in social housing try looking at any landlords website to see if they advise their tenants to appeal the bedroom tax.  I’ll give you an easier task, go to your local park and fins a four leafed clover.

Even if housing officers (those tiny minority still not called income officers) were to seek this tenant look the vast majority wouldn’t know what to do.  They simply do not have the welfare benefit knowledge or the people skills to advise the social tenant.  The odd few do and will find a way to make some time that they don’t have and they need applauding; yet it is only because they make the time and research and train themselves in their own time from some of the excellent free material available on the internet, such as the sanctions and other leaflets produced by the Reclaim group I volunteer with.  I have seen the same altruism in other groups across the North West and beyond, ordinary people some not affected by the bedroom tax most never politically active come together to help their fellow man and woman because enough is enough.  Genuine ordinary people who remind you that the 1% idealism you have buried with the mountain of cynicism you have is not misplaced; genuine people who know how to interact with other human beings, the social bit that social landlords just don’t have, at least in general needs housing the 95% that makes up mainstream rented housing.

What has also emerged over the past 9 months or so is that social landlords are not even managed by Chief Executives anymore, Finance Directors hold top priority followed by PR teams and then the Chief Exec in that order.  Get the money in and get it in now.  Harass the tenant to death and send out pay up or we take the kids off you letters from KHT and South Ayrshire so disgracefully put out these past weeks.  Chief Execs become no more than a titular head and many tenants think that description has 4 letters too many.

“Social” landlords are becoming less and less ‘social’ and in such quick time that social landlord has become a misnomer.  They are landlords not social landlords.

I have no issue whatsoever with (social) landlords saying we have to get rent monies in.  Of course they do yet that cannot excuse the KHT threatening letter of pay rent or we take the kids and so many examples of bad practice which I like to think is mostly inept rather than intent, though perhaps that is more of my ideal and naive side coming through?

The welfare reform agenda of which the bedroom tax is but one tiny part is divisive and a direct attack on the social housing model. It is also extremely radical so while it is largely accepted by landlords that the social tenant has life-changing decisions to have to make, the same landlords just don’t see the same seachange this obviates for landlords.  Housing Benefit has long been seen as rent subsidy and not a welfare benefit and this view has to change.  It will change out of all proportion soon when HB is paid directly to the social tenant and not as now direct to the landlord.

Responses to the bedroom tax and wider welfare reforms from landlords has been getting the money in and to hell with how we are perceived in doing that as long as it is lawful. We can always fall back on the ‘we-have-to-collect-the-rent’ strategy and get out of our customer responsibilities that way.

I carefully chose the phrase “customer responsibilities” and not some wishy-washy sentimental notion of our charitable ethos or moral obligations etc.  Landlords have responsibilities to their customers yet still don’t see that and boy oh boy are they going to regret their pay up at (almost) all costs strategy they currently have and dictated to staff on a top-down basis from the Finance Director running these organisations.

That critique will be sneered at by housing professionals an rebuked by the largest PRIVATE registered providers (PRP) to give housing associations their correct title. PRPs are led and dominated by the largest ones who mostly have properties in the south who dictate national PRP responses along with the NHF and CIH who are both based there.  The same ‘south’ that sees London only have 22% of working-age tenants affected by the bedroom tax compared with double that percentage in the North West and in Yorkshire and Humber and in Wales. The alleged ‘sector-wide’ responses from PRPs all tended to stem from the cabal-like London-centric PRPs and as they have far fewer bedroom tax cases we see a weak ‘sector’ response to the bedroom tax.  Conversely because 47% of benefit cap cases are in London (and 46% are social housing cases) the contrast with PRP outrage over the benefit cap and a much more forceful challenge (or moan) is self evident.

‘Social’ landlords who are notoriously slow to act in any case and are uber conservative in terms of challenging national housing policy have been all the more slow to challenge the bedroom tax as the sector ‘leaders’ are less affected by it.  The best challenge from any semblance of a sector approach is by far the Real Life Reform project that is being led by the Northern Housing Consortium and the clue is in the name.  Yet the RLR project is by no means enough and nowhere near enough.

Some landlords are beginning to realise why they were termed ‘social’ landlords in the first place, slowly and incrementally of course and they never move or act quickly.  However, more and more evidence is beginning to emerge of (social) landlords taking a stronger approach to challenge the bedroom tax. Whether the increasingly noted cases of housing officers helping tenants to appeal the bedroom tax is evidence of an informal policy move that may become formal PRP policy or just individual housing officers doing the right thing remains to be seen.  Yet as I said above go find that four-leaf clover as you have a better chance of finding than a ‘social’ landlords website that advocates or even informs tenants they can appeal the bedroom tax

Shortly I hope to be announcing and celebrating a very innovative solution by a large social landlord I have been speaking with.  Yes knock me down with a feather and I will be able to praise a true social landlord that know what “customer responsibilities” actually means.  Apart from doing the right thing that should have been done from day one and by ALL landlords of getting ‘four-square behind the tenants cause as I have often described what landlords should do in the bedroom tax fight, customer responsibilities is not a moral obligation but a survival one and good business practice.  Look out for and after your customers and they will pay more if not all of their direct HB payments to you in rent. Antagonise the hell out of them and place demand upon demand on them and generally treat them like the cash cow income generators they have always been and they will find many higher priorities than paying rent when they take CONTROL of rent payment.

I have raised the direct payment argument many times before but it needs stating over and over again  It does mean tenants take control or the payment of rent and it does mean tenants hold the power and yes the tenant really will become a customer in more than name only.

These customers are now experiencing what housing benefit is just another welfare benefit as that is what the welfare reforms mean.

No longer is full housing benefit the norm and something that doe not affect the customer of the social landlord, the social tenant.  It is tied up with all other welfare benefits and with a few discretionary ones thrown into the mix too.  Landlords are so slow to react to this.  Their customer, the social tenant, needs their landlord and staff to have far more knowledge of welfare benefits than before and I mean right across the board not just a 4 person team newly created and isolated.  Welfare benefit knowledge is a cultural shift and change that a real social landlord has to see.  HB is no longer a given that led Shapps to call landlords a ‘lazy consensus’ it is to be fought for and ALL social landlord staff need that knowledge and have it embedded in the landlord culture.  It is a key skill and a huge training issue for all social landlords if they want to survive.

I opened with the ‘wistful’ look that bedroom tax tenants have and far too often housing staff have a BLANK look if you mention GL24 forms, extreme hardship funds and BLANK and GLAZED OVER look is you mention “mandatory consideration before appeal!” (Psst just google it if you’re a landlord!)

Customers also need what landlords like to call ‘customer service’ which in landlords view is let’s have a call centre and a new HQ on some remote inaccessible industrial estate!!  People deal with and buy from people not with remote dispassionate mono toned computer says no types who you finally get to speak with after 25 minutes of Greensleeves of the bloody ubiquitous Four Seasons.

Social housing is no longer about ‘bricks and mortar’ it is about people so social landlord staff need guess what – yes people skills!

These are just a few of he changes and URGENT changes social landlords need to do and all as a result of the radical nature of the welfare reforms.  Carry on dallying and you become just mere landlords or not PRPs just Ps – Private!

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2 thoughts on “Do social landlords know what “customer” means? Don’t be silly!

  1. Hi Joe, have Croydon and the other councils actually made a decision to apply the size standard across the board when making their own bedroom tax decisions, or are they simply advocating the Housing Associations in their area do this, or reclassifying their own properties? If it is the former, can you send me a link? (I can’t seem to get anything from the False Economy site). Thanks a lot Ruth

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