Ruth Cooke explains how housing associations are best placed to support disadvantaged communities with their tenancies
Terrie Alafat, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing, opened Housing 2017 by highlighting the extent to which our society is becoming more divided financially, politically, ideologically and by generation.
It was argued that in such times, the role of housing associations working in the heart of communities is more important than it has ever been.
Midland Heart is one of the largest housing associations in the Midlands, providing 33,000 homes to accommodate 70,000 customers.
Working within some of the most deprived areas of Birmingham and the surrounding area, we are acutely aware of the challenges continually faced by customers who are finding it increasingly difficult to sustain their tenancies.
We are finding that individuals experiencing money worries and depression can also display signs of distress through substance or alcohol misuse, hoarding or anti-social behaviour. Couple this with the vital needs of an ageing population and we know that early intervention is absolutely essential.
“We are acutely aware of the challenges continually faced by customers.”
Our teams are currently working on 560 open cases which relate to ‘customer behaviour’ such as anti-social behaviour, safeguarding and tenancy fraud. If we include the number of individuals currently being supported with money advice, that figure rises to 800.
All of these issues potentially threaten those customers’ ability to sustain their tenancies. And we know that keeping someone in a safe, secure tenancy is one of the most important things we can do for our customers.
By addressing problems at the outset, we can avoid the need for costlier interventions from statutory public services later down the line and, most importantly, help customers to sustain their tenancies and ultimately live independently.
During her keynote speech, Ms Alafat reinforced that the housing sector has to diversify to respond to the challenges presented with customers struggling to live a decent life and asked us to consider what our response will be to an increasingly unstable environment.
Already a step ahead, in 2016 Midland Heart changed its business structure to combine care and support and housing operations into a single directorate.
Bringing together different skills and synergies from across the business, the new directorate oversees a newly formed neighbourhood division with two key teams: a people team and a place team.
Primarily responsible for the welfare of our general need customers, the people team is integral to our strategy for sustaining customers’ tenancies by challenging and changing behaviours that place their tenancies at risk.
As it is specifically trained to identify triggers that suggest a customer is struggling with their tenancy, the people team has been able to pinpoint and foresee potential issues through reported rent arrears, complaints or anti-social behaviour.
Since the new directorate came into force last year we have seen a significant increase in both anti-social behaviour and safeguarding cases reported.
For example, during the first six months of 2015, 126 safeguarding cases were reported. During the same six months of 2016, this increased to 599.
Similarly, anti-social behaviour cases have increased from 675 to 752 over the same period. We believe the increasing number of customers experiencing behavioural issues has made the establishment of the people team more important than ever. They have a proven record now of making a difference to customers’ lives.
It is still early days but all the signs are that our new targeted approach is improving outcomes too. We are particularly pleased that our rate of tenancy sustainment following concerns being raised has increased from around 70% to around 90%.
“By helping customers maintain their tenancies, we are reducing the number of referrals to other agencies.”
The early identification of vulnerabilities and having an agile team that is able respond quickly and flexibly to calls for help is having a real impact in the communities that need it most.
Some may argue that it is not the responsibility of housing associations to provide such services, but those working in the sector know that we are much more than housing and have long made the connection between housing and well-being.
Good housing breeds good health and by helping customers maintain their tenancies, we are reducing the number of referrals to other agencies. We’re also doing one of the most vital things to help our customers improve their life chances: supporting them to stay in a safe, secure, affordable home.
Change is needed and housing associations are better placed than most to prove that good housing is the key to unlocking potential savings in other areas and crucially to provide vital interventions to support customers to sustain their tenancies and safeguard the future of our communities.
Ruth Cooke, chief executive, Midland Heart