East Kent gives a helping hand through the UC maze
The introduction of Universal Credit (UC) has changed the way many of tenants have to manage their household finances, with many increasingly responsible for making sure they pay their rent while managing the transition to the new benefit. As East Kent Housing director of customer services Matt Gough explains, landlords can make a big difference to how easy this can be.
The new system has had a significant impact on both our tenants and on landlords, and East Kent Housing (EKH) has responded by focusing on supporting those households that have moved over to UC.
The effects of the switch from a range of benefits to one unified monthly payment has been well documented, and the changes the Government has already introduced make it clear that its introduction has been challenging.
We can’t change the system, but as a responsible and caring housing provider we feel we should do all we can to help the more vulnerable amongst our tenants.
That’s why EKH has been working hard to help people sustain their tenancy while coping with the switch to UC and its infamous five-week waiting period, efforts that have now been recognised.
Our supportive approach to helping tenants transfer to the new system has won us recognition in a high-profile document looking at the impact of UC on tenants and housing providers across the country.
The document, Patching the Safety Net, highlights the work of EKH, which houses tenants on behalf of Canterbury City Council and the district councils of Dover, Folkestone and Hythe and Thanet, as a good example of what can be done to help tenants switching to the new payment.
Its work was showcased in this year’s annual survey into the impact of UC carried out by the Association of Retained Council Housing and the National Federation of ALMOs.
The survey revealed that 67% of households on UC were in arrears at the time of the survey, roughly three times the figure (21%) for households on Housing Benefit. It also showed that 32% of households in arrears only found themselves in that situation after moving to UC, mainly because of the five-week waiting period.
An income recovery officer contacts new tenants within two weeks, providing contact details and beginning a supportive relationship. The officer promotes rent in advance and the use of direct debit and refers vulnerable tenants to the sustainment team.
Where tenants move to UC, the recovery officer makes contact within five days to explain how the new benefit works and help ensure they pay their rent. They also raise the possibility of applying for an Alternative Payment Arrangement (APA).
A recovery officer contacts the tenant on the day of their first payment to ensure they have received their housing element, remind them what to pay and take payment over the phone if possible.
EKH does not begin proceedings in UC cases until they are eight weeks in arrears and will apply for an APA at this stage in a bid to avoid court action. The sustainment team visits tenants ahead of any court proceedings, and twice before eviction day, to ensure it does everything possible to avoid the ultimate sanction.
Patching the Safety Net also praised the work of our money and benefit advisors, who work closely with tenants who need help.
In a recent case, a tenant could not attend the JobCentre to switch to UC because her leg was in plaster. She also knew she would struggle with the online form, so an EKH advisor visited her at home with her laptop and completed the form with her.
Another tenant who was struggling to look after his sick wife and ran into financial difficulties while trying to care for her was finding it difficult to sort out which benefits he was entitled to.
After one of our advisors helped him through the maze, he said: “Without him I wouldn’t have had a clue and I would have really struggled financially at a time when I was already finding it hard emotionally.”