Good state of repair
Grant Shapps’ tenant cashback scheme is not a new concept. Tenants of one housing association have been conducting their own repairs for years. Simon Brandon finds out more
Housing minister Grant Shapps’ plan to give tenants the responsibility for carrying or contracting out their own repairs has caused quite a bit of controversy since its announcement in April. When Inside Housing published a story about it online on 7 April, 21 readers commented.
But Mr Shapps was not the first to come up with the idea. Chisel Housing Association, a small, south London-based landlord managing around 250 homes, has been running its own tenant maintainers scheme since 2008. As long as tenants can prove their own competence, and providing the work is necessary, Chisel will pay its residents to carry out repairs and maintenance themselves.
The programme works well for the housing association - enabling tenants to look after their own home fits in with its wider ethos.
Director John Smith explains: ‘We are very focused on hands-on tenant involvement and that is where our tenant maintainers policy comes from. We do it because we believe in tenants being involved in everything they want to be involved in. All repair jobs [excluding gas work] could be done by tenants, I would say.’
Chisel originally stood for Co-operative Housing in south east London and it is this that forms the foundation of the tenant maintainers scheme.
‘Our interest in grassroots tenant control is still part of our make-up and our philosophy,’ adds Mr Smith. ‘If you have tenants wanting to take levels of responsibility we will try to enable them to do that, whatever it is they are interested in doing. Maintenance is the issue that is of most interest to most tenants, so our system enables tenants to have direct input in that if that is what they want to do.’
The government intends to plough billions of pounds into its tenant cashback scheme, which could see tenants receive around £1,000 to carry out repairs themselves or chose a local company to do the work. Tenants will also be able to pocket any savings made, which the government suggests they might want to spend on a deposit for their own house.
They will also be able to pool their resources, creating a community cashback account which could be used to fund improvements to the local area for the benefit of all residents.
For Chisel’s tenants, maintaining their properties is simply a logical continuation of the work they’ve always done (see box, right: Self-build to self-maintenance). ‘We don’t have any large estates. Our largest schemes might be a dozen properties,’ explains Mr Smith. ‘All those sites are self-build; our other homes are street properties and are scattered about. The biggest impetus has been from the self-build sites. Tenants do feel ownership of those properties, because a large proportion of them will be the original builders - and you can’t get much more ownership than that. They know the properties better than we do.’
A good job
Some tenants have replaced their own kitchens and bathrooms - and they probably installed the originals. Meanwhile, non self-build tenants have done jobs, but on a smaller scale.
‘The jobs have run the whole gamut, although we don’t tend to do things like electrics or plumbing, and we haven’t had any gas work done because obviously you need to be gas-safe. It’s trade at the low end of skills, generally,’ says Mr Smith.
‘One of the beauties [of our scheme] is we are so small that our housing manager and maintenance officer will know the tenants. That gives us the ability to do this where large associations might find it hard to follow. If we agreed that Mr Jones needs his bathroom re-tiling, we would know straight away whether or not he was up to the job,’ he continues.
‘None of this can happen without input from our maintenance officer. He has to know what the job is, he has to approve it needs doing, and he has to be able to assure himself and the housing manager that the person is competent. That is quite a lot of effort and work, and then they have to troubleshoot it on site.’
Although Chisel has not measured the costs of ‘tenant maintaining’,
Mr Smith is certain that it’s not a cheap option. ‘It is not something you can do on the expectation it will save you money. You aren’t going to save money.’
‘Basically, you are employing a tenant, and if they did something wrong you would be responsible. Either they have to be covered by their own insurance or by yours. The landlord remains liable, that’s why it is not a cheap option.’
By agreeing for tenants to conduce their own repairs, you are avoiding contractors’ overhead costs, ‘so there is a raft of savings to be made there,’ says Mr Smith, ‘but counterbalanced against those are the admin-type costs’.
More paper work
Tenants conducting their own repairs and maintenance inevitably involves more administration and input on the housing association’s behalf than using a contractor, Mr Smith says, based on experience.
‘[Normally] you can pass this responsibility onto the contractor in many cases. If there is a problem it’s down to the contractor to sort it out, but if a tenant maintainer has a problem they are going to come back to you.’
Chisel also helps tenants with acquiring materials if necessary and offers to assist with the costs of delivering them on site.
Within the constraints of health and safety policies, insurance restrictions, Chisel tries to be as flexible as possible when working with tenants on repairs and maintenance. ‘That is the whole point of the policy,’ says Mr Smith. ‘At the end of the day, you have to believe it is worthwhile in terms of tenants taking control.’
Self-build to self-maintenance
Michael Mayes, a Chisel tenant living in Colchester, fitted a disabled-access bathroom in his own home in January this year. A contractor was hired to do the plumbing, but he tiled the room and installed the fittings and flooring himself, and charged Chisel £2,020 for supplies and labour.
His wife Annie Mayes, says that her husband built the house himself, so he knows it better than anyone. ‘He knew where everything was and he wanted to the work done to a particular standard. And he could just get on with it because [the work] had to be done quite quickly,’ she says. ‘We paid for everything upfront, and then we billed Chisel [for materials] and Michael’s labour and they sent us a cheque within ten days. It made it a lot easier [than using a contractor]. And it’s a great job - I am thrilled to bits.’