02 Dec 2022

Providing immediate and emergency relief for tenants in fuel poverty

Here at Aspire Housing, we’ve seen an increase in those needing help as we face the cost of living crisis. Many of our residents have cut back as far as they are able and the traditional ways in which we could help are now more complex – meaning we must look at new ways to help our residents.

We offer a range of initiatives for customers who may be facing fuel poverty or need a helping hand due to rising costs. Our money advice team work collaboratively with colleagues to ensure that their vital support (such as advice, signposting, funding, and vouchers) is directed to those residents who need it most. Facilitating this is our locality working model, which enhances our ‘people and place’ knowledge and helps us to better build and align partnerships.

Customers who were previously ‘just about managing’ are now struggling more than ever, especially if they have not qualified for the cost of living payment. As a result, the type of support has changed – people need immediate and emergency relief (such as debt relief). Since the beginning of the year, we have sourced four-times more relief in hardship grants for customers, compared to the same period last year. This shows the increase in demand for immediate action. Nearly a fifth of this was for fuel vouchers.

We have seen people who have no actual debt issues but are simply struggling with the increased cost of their ongoing bills. The solution to this is not always clear, providing new challenges for our money advice team. We look at income maximisation, debt management, data, fuel, and food vouchers, and then at what else can be sourced. It often feels like we are putting a sticky plaster on, but we are ready to deal with what comes next.

We also provide advice and resources online that are accessible to all our residents, such as mental health support, energy saving tips, damp and mould advice, employment support, and signposting to organisations that offer support with food, travel, etc.

There are four colleagues undertaking a Level 3 Energy Awareness qualifications through National Energy Action (NEA). This will enable the money advice team to provide more detailed energy advice to residents and colleagues. Not only does this help to lower bills but it also helps to reduce energy use, which supports Aspire Housing’s goal to get to net zero by 2050.

We also have ten colleagues across the business who have been through a ‘Money Guidance’ programme. This involves giving impartial guidance on money management and financial wellbeing, from signposting through to complex, technical guidance.

Using insight and collaborating

The scale of the current situation is at the forefront of our minds, and we are always looking out for important insight and opportunities to help residents. This includes funding bids to finance new positions in the advisory team. One of our money advisors is also part of a best practice group that meets with other local organisations to look at ways to work together and share knowledge and experiences. Internally, we have a fuel poverty and cost of living working group who share information and best practice. When engaging with our residents in any form, we are always considering whether they may need to be signposted to support. This could include when they are responding to surveys on a completely different topic (online or over the phone).

Building partnerships

We recognise that teaming up with other organisations is extremely important, particularly those who are experts in their field and can offer support to customers in these worrying times. Examples include:

Green Doctor's local team help our residents by providing free, impartial advice and support to help them save energy, reduce bills, and live in a warmer, more comfortable home. They also offer weekly sessions from one of our town centre hubs where residents can drop-in.

Through the partnership, we can offer our most vulnerable residents Winter Packs. These are referred by the advisory team and delivered by Locality Managers. Working in localities helps us to have a more focused view on need. The packs include radiator foils, light bulbs, advice and more.

Beat the Cold is a Staffordshire-based charity, whose aim is to reduce fuel poverty, and cold related ill health. They offer training and support with utility bills if a resident is in debt with suppliers.

We have also worked in partnership with the local council, attending events and providing support to families with housing/tenancy management concerns. Our teams also got involved in a partnership initiative, moving thousands of slow cookers to the locations where the events will take place (Heat & Eat project). The residents who engaged took home a slow cooker in the hope that it promotes healthy and active lifestyles and allows for residents to be able to cook at a much lower cost. (Photo’s below)

Over the past couple of months, we have also been setting partnership arrangements with Charis to enable our residents to receive utility hardship payments through a voucher code system, utilising local ‘post offices’ and ‘pay-points’ for access. This partnership means we can help people quicker – issuing vouchers within 10 minutes, which can be used for a variety of items from fuel vouchers, cash vouchers to be spent with particular retailers or clothing vouchers for uniforms.

Digital poverty can be on par with food/fuel poverty

We understand that digitally excluded residents may not be able to access some information and advice. We have a range of initiatives to support residents and encourage participation. Our Community Living Team have been working collaboratively with our IT team in pulling together a programme of basic IT sessions to deliver in our local hubs to our elderly residents to get them digital ready. In terms of improving connectivity, the Team are also piloting community Wi-Fi in five of our schemes. Our Money Mentor is also taking part in the National Data Bank initiative which enables us to provide free mobile internet data (via pre-loaded SIM cards) to residents who could not otherwise afford it.

A greener future

Contributing to our greener future is high on our agenda and we have recently appointed a green future lead within the business and launched our sustainability strategy. We have also been awarded funding (Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund), secured in collaboration with our Local Authority, which will support external wall insulation and efficiency improvements to 36 homes. These energy efficiency improvements include an offer of a new smart heating thermostat which will enable residents to control their heating more economically. These have only just begun work and we are excited about what the results will show us. There has been a keen interest into some of our other homes where they will be useful.

We continue to build on these relationships and together we can help as many residents as possible through these tough times.

Submitted by Aspire Housing

Aspire Housing provide affordable rental homes in Staffordshire and Cheshire, helping and supporting more than 20,000 customers. They are focused on supporting their customers and communities; last year, their money advisors helped Aspire customers reduce their debts by £2 million and employment experts helped 150 people into work.