by Stacey Green, Head of Client Services, Voicescape
Tips from the Coal Face
Working with people on the coal face of delivering operational Housing Services is the part of my role that I love the most. What stands out is the passion and resilience they bring to work on a daily basis. And, passion and resilience are qualities increasingly in demand in social housing, particularly within Income Management. Objectives such as maintaining pre-universal credit collection rates, changes to operational processes and importantly, a shift in individual skills sets. We looked at some of these changes at a Voicescape event hosted by Northwards Housing recently. What really resonated with me was the top tips share by the Income Managers. Their tips reflected my conversations with clients so I asked if I could share them to help spread the message. Northwards Housing are a client that have always impressed me. Their ability to combine zeal with compassion when facing operational challenges brought about by Universal Credit is amazing. At this particular event; Alison Bowyer, Team Leader; Anita Doyle, Senior and Nicola Ellison, Senior at Northwards Housing had pulled together some Top Tips to help income teams to help their tenants. These are too good not to share:
1.Early Intervention is Key
Northwards Housing make a referral to their in-house Money Advice service as soon as they receive notification (via the Landlord Portal) that one of their tenants have made a claim for Universal Credit. This service, called Money Matters, offers support for budgeting which can help tenants navigate their way through making a claim. At this stage they also conduct a needs assessment to make sure the most vulnerable tenants get appropriate support. Early intervention gives them the very best lead time to organise the right kind of support that tenants might need.
2.Make Rent Priority
Northwards contact all new Universal Credit claimants by phone. They also follow up with a letter outlining how much rent must be paid and how this is broken down. This stops numerous re-verifications and gives the tenant the tools to make payments towards their rent. It also importantly underlines the message that rent is a priority.
3.Check Claimants Journals
Checking claimants’ journals with them reduces errors in the system that could take a long time to correct. To resource this, Northwards have an ‘open door’ policy, which means they provide appointments tenants can book as well as a Duty Officer on site in office hours. Spending the time checking claimants’ journals brings clarity to often confusing awards and keeps them informed if APA’s have been approved and are going to be paid directly to them.
4. Use support services
Using support services reduces the stretch internal resources. For example, Citizens Advice Manchester have been awarded an annual contract by the DWP to help support new Universal Credit claimants. This is for every Manchester resident and includes telephone, digital and face to face support from starting the claim to first payment. Not all Northwards customers need money or welfare rights advice, but some may need support in terms of setting up email addresses, bank accounts or just navigating their new Universal Credit journal at first. Make sure that you know what support is out there and build relationships with support services.
5. Separate claim for Council Tax
Not all tenants who are eligible to pay Council Tax (CTAX) realise that they also need to claim CTAX support separately. Supporting tenants with this claim can free up money for rent. A CTAX claim has an impact on any DHP claims as these will not be assessed if the claimant does not have a CTAX support claim.
6.Check if tenants are having deductions taken from their Universal Credit
Northwards tenants have had deductions taken from their UC in several cases. Obviously this has an impact on the money that they have left to pay their rent. Sometimes these deductions are applied incorrectly, particularly where tenants have DLA or PIP claims and they are subject to a non-dependent deduction.
7. Avoid APA’s wherever possible
DWP schedules are 2 months out of date by the time we get the managed payments on the rent account. This causes distorted rent arrears figures and is difficult to manage and monitor, particularly with skipped schedules. It’s can be confusing to navigate and can mean tenants are never sure of their exact level of arrears. The most difficult to manage are situations where people are working and claiming UC.
8. Don’t always rely on a DWP decision maker making the right decision
Northwards experienced a recent case with a tenant under 21 years old where the DWP decision maker deemed he did not qualify for housing costs. The DWP had been provided information that demonstrated this tenant had successfully claimed HB prior to his UC claim. A mandatory reconsideration did not overturn the decision, but Northwards challenged the decision through the escalation route. It took a lot of time and effort and during that time they witnessed the rent account balance go from £0.00 to £3390.02. However, eventually the decision was overturned, and housing costs were fully backdated for the tenant.
9. Tidy up untidy tenancies
Ensure the correct amount of housing costs are paid to tenants who are left in single occupation in a joint tenancy is key. Northwards identify this at the verification stage on the Portal and contact the tenant immediately to ensure they understand that they are liable for the full amount of rent. We provide a letter to hand to their work coach so that they can be paid the correct amount of housing costs.
Northwards Housing have had cases that have taken a considerable amount of time to resolve and they have witnessed rent arrears increase extremely quickly in some cases. By being proactive at an early stage they have managed to ensure in most cases that the correct housing costs are paid, and arrears prevented from increasing further.
Do you or your income team work differently? Or do you have any extra tips to add to this list? I would love to hear from you if so. Drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org