This post argues that social landlords are no longer social and argues that landlords care only about arrears deficits yet have ignored the bigger knowledge and thought deficits they have. Above all it argues that welfare reform changes the face of social housing to make it about people and not about bricks and mortar. Finally it argues that social housing is not up to the task of the change and quick and radical change is needed needs to challenge the welfare reforms which are a fundamental attack on social housing that landlords seem oblivious to and are doing little to challenge.
The bedroom tax, overall benefit cap, the monthly payment of welfare benefits and the direct payment of Housing Benefit to tenants are all part of the Welfare Reform Act introduced by the coalition government.
The ‘welfare reforms’ as they are commonly and collectively known present radial change to social landlords, social tenants and the social housing model of service delivery. They require an equally radical response and from tenants and landlords and landlords especially if they are to survive.
From spending the last 18 months studying the bedroom tax and overall benefit cap that response also has to be far more proactive than the first year of implementation has seen.
The social tenant can and should appeal the bedroom tax decisions received and needs to prepare for the introduction of monthly welfare benefit payments and the payment of HB direct to them, although monthly payments and direct payments are still some way in the future.
The bedroom tax alone is proving very troublesome to the social tenant (with good reason) and the overall benefit cap is still in its infancy and other welfare reform still to be implemented, so tenant challenges and responses are largely limited to appealing.
The social landlord despite some recent evidence of an increased challenge and response in the last few months is very much a case of too little too late. The social landlords need to up their game and very quickly indeed. They need to rethink welfare reform and quickly and to simplify it into what it is – an attack of the social housing model and stop acting in what former Housing Minister Grant Shapps called a lazy consensus.
The bedroom tax illustrates the attack on social housing as a model and it highlights a number of key issues:-
- Social housing as its name implies is now about people and no longer about ‘bricks and mortar.’ Yet social landlords do NOT know their tenants and largely because they have never had to before in the decades of full housing benefit payments that predated the bedroom tax
- This is a clear knowledge deficit and that can only get worse the longer the bedroom tax continues and the longer other factors such as the abolition of council tax benefit kick in and impacts upon the lives and ‘buying’ habits of social tenants
- How HB deductions (the bedroom tax) impacts on tenants has not been considered in any seriousness by social landlords and has been largely seen as just an arrears issue and met with traditional arrears responses
- The bedroom tax has fundamentally changed the landlord tenant relationship and social landlords have not responded to that adequately or quickly enough because of their knowledge deficit and because they have not thought the welfare reforms through
- This combined knowledge and thought deficit creates huge problems for the social housing model and for every social landlord
The knowledge deficit can be ‘excused’ for the reasons that landlords are playing catch up and not had to know how tenants would react to welfare reforms, yet the thought deficit is not excusable.
The bedroom tax appeal explains this thought deficit as landlords were (but no longer) highly resistant to tenants appealing decisions as landlords wrongly believed if an alleged 3 bed property became a 2 bed after appeal that they would (a) have to reduce the rent level and (b) have a reduced asset value leading to higher borrowing costs.
Yet after each successful bedroom tax appeal we find the rent level remains and the landlord receives more in housing benefit.
Successful bedroom tax appeals actually benefit the landlord and their initial resistance to appeals has proven to be hugely overcautious.
However the larger thought deficit was in landlords response to tenants caught by the bedroom tax as not only did they not support the tenant to appeal they bombarded the tenant with red inked letter after red inked letter threatening court actions.
What this did was exacerbate the direct tension the bedroom tax caused between landlord and tenant to create the trust deficit between tenant and landlords and tenants no longer trust landlords and that is a huge issue which if left unattended will create massive problems for social landlords.
Every organisation in every sector needs good customer relations and social housing is no different, yet landlords have ignored this significant dynamic. Landlords will say they attempted to separate bedroom tax affected tenants into unfortunate cant payers and irresponsible wont payers, yet they treated ALL tenants as irresponsible wont payers with heavy handed arrears strategies. That was and is quite simply stupid.
When housing benefit is finally paid directly to tenants, the direct payment element of welfare reforms, the tenant will remember the heavy handed arrears strategies and lack of support for appeal and tenants will de-prioritise the payment of rent for which they, very significantly indeed, will have control of. Tenants do have a perception of mistrust of landlords which landlords themselves heightened and stupidly so with their arrears strategies.
That brief overview reveals the thought deficit which landlords have shown in hugely significant terms and landlords have to repair that perception and often reality ahead of the introduction of direct payment.
Put as simply as possible landlords have to win back tenant trust
Yet just as every organisation needs good customer relations landlords must realise the old adage is at play that it takes 20 years to build a good reputation and just 5 minutes to lose it.
Social landlords have had plenty of 5 minute moments over the last year with the bedroom tax and their customer relations with tenants (who invariably dislike being referred to as customers too!)
Tenants are people not customers and not units or lines on a spreadsheet and landlords need to deserve to be called ‘social’ landlords and not for tenants to become aware that the correct name for a housing association who comprise 60% of all ‘social’ landlords is a PRP, a PRIVATE Registered Provider. RPs as they like to refer to themselves is not just a shortened version of PRP and is more than semantics. Housing association trade on their charitable and ‘social’ roots and the welfare reforms being all about people reveals that landlords need to be getting rid of the knowledge deficit and begin to help and support tenants (note I did not say ‘their’ tenants too!)
The welfare reforms fundamentally change the role of social landlords to become more social and not less yet ‘social’ landlords have become perceived by social tenants as mere businesses and little different from private sector landlords (PSLs) aka the big blue meanies of rented housing they claim to differentiate themselves from!
Having worked in mostly supported housing which has always been about people and not ‘bricks and mortar’ like general needs housing, for over 20 years the importance of reputation and of treating tenants as people is natural. Yet in the common or garden social housing the reverse is true with typically one housing officer presiding over a ‘patch’ of 500 properties containing 1200 tenants. The general needs housing professional has 37 hours to ‘look after’ and know the needs of 1200 tenants whereas the supported housing professional works 37 hours to look after 8 tenants. That is a hugely significant difference and simply explains why supported housing professionals do not have the knowledge deficit of tenants when general needs HOs do have a knowledge deficit of their tenants
The welfare reforms mean general needs housing staff have to become more people oriented just like their supported housing colleagues. They need to know about people not about ‘bricks and mortar’ as that is what the welfare reforms do to social housing – they make it about people!
Social landlords could learn a lot from supported housing though most of them don’t have supported housing teams after Supporting People cuts. Those that still do after the last Labour government’s debacle of removing the SP ringfence in 2009 have very generic and very low-level support teams and they by definition can only deliver superficial and generic help to social landlords plagued by the welfare reforms. Yet landlords need to realise that dealing with their invariable sole focus of arrears deficits is greatly enhanced by overcoming the knowledge and thought deficits they have.
Support (your) tenants and landlord arrears reduce is a simple strategy that landlords need to adopt and very quickly
From working in supported housing for 20 years I thought I knew tenants. I was wrong as the last year working extensively with them in bedroom tax and other appeals have revealed – and if I had a knowledge deficit then just how big is the knowledge deficit in your average general needs social landlord!
Landlords also need to realise in their thought deficit that with a second year of bedroom tax, a second year of council tax payments and with all the cumulative impacts of welfare reforms, many of which are still to be implemented that they need a massive rethink on welfare reform policies. Some landlords such as Coast & Country in Redcar and Cobalt Housing in Liverpool have issued numerous standard bedroom tax appeal template letters which is encouraging as is reminding tenants they can help them appeal which Cobalt Housing also put on the end of each rent statement (very encouraging) but needs much more thought.
Can a social landlord really help all its tenants to appeal? Having first advocated all tenants should appeal in August 2012 a good 6 months before the bedroom tax went live I love the idea, yet is it feasible and is it just one strategy?
No far from it and it needs all landlords to develop these and many more strategies of challenging welfare reforms and winning back ‘their’ tenants. This is the area of work that will take up my time the next 12 months as even those naive enough to believe the bedroom tax will go with a majority Labour government after the next election must realise that they too are supportive of many of the coalition welfare reforms such as the overall benefit cap and direct payments … and have agreed to welfare austerity for the first two years of any new government.
As no major political party is standing up for social housing then for social landlords to do nothing is a reckless and stupid strategy in dealing with welfare reforms whether by this government or the next.
To revert to my Speye alter ego …”Dear reader when are landlords going to wake up smell the coffee and grow a set of balls?”
The radical nature of responses to welfare reforms is urgent and so is the need to be creative and proactively creative in responses and especially collective responses. Where is the claimed social housing ‘sector?’ Where are its leaders and advocates for social housing who must surely see that the welfare reforms attack social housing per se and threaten to undo the great things it achieves?
- Why is nobody saying for example that social housing with its £1.2bn per year subsidy is a great invest to save programme which saves £5bn per year in housing benefit?
- Why is nobody saying this invest to save programme saves the average taxpayer £170 per year not costs the taxpayer?
- Why is nobody saying that a social tenant can afford to accept a job paying £6k per year less than his private sector neighbour as his rent is so much lower?
- Why is nobody within the ‘sector’ making the simple and obvious argument that PRS housing is much more an issue of welfare dependency than social housing ever is?
It doesn’t need this housing professional to go into an alter ego to say just where the hell is the claimed sector! There IS no collective sector within social housing; it’s just a loose assembly of 1200 social landlords who have a few yearly jamborees and claim they are a sector and one that has no leaders or leadership.
The welfare reforms to date have revealed that social landlords are not ‘social’ and that landlords have a far bigger problem with thought and knowledge deficits than with arrears deficits.
The lazy consensus anyone?