Tenancy sustainment work has long been important for landlords not only wishing to ensure the rent is collected, but to support their tenants to thrive in their homes. In this piece Rebecca White explores why it matters now more than ever and shares her organisation’s empowering approach to achieving it.
We’re all emerging into a world that has changed forever. If there is a new normal, for many it is one that means more competition for jobs that don’t pay, worsening mental health and fewer opportunities. The financial headaches for us as individuals must surely be replicated corporately in the boardrooms of housing associations up and down the land.
Of all the partners we work with, we’ve huge empathy for our colleagues in social housing. Not a conversation passes when we don’t learn of concern for a particular tenant, the extraordinary lengths many have gone to to keep people safe in their homes, maintenance teams now grappling to catch up with repairs and tenants disengaging due to anxiety and months of isolation. All the while the business model depends on the rent being collected every single week.
So why is it then, when engagement for the purposes of tenancy sustainment is so important, that the actual people engagement is often so poor? As organisations that spend a lot of time and money trying to engage, why is practice so mired in assumptions, people feeling patronised and being mis-advised rather than listened to? Why are tenants blamed when systems don’t work and judged when we can’t know their lived experience or what choices look and feel like to them?
Against this backdrop of missed opportunities how does a system that has been managing crises for a year, return to a ‘prevention’ mindset and rebuild the relationships necessary for tenancy sustainment?
Because it has to. To ignore the prevention agenda now would likely prove dangerous financially. It would also be harmful to the very people landlords regard as valued customers and whose lives are wrapped up in the place that should be their safe and secure home. One housing association confided in me that even before Covid19, over 85% of their tenants had less than £10 in savings. Since Covid19 the number of people claiming unemployment benefits has risen 120% and Shelter reports that over 80% of social housing tenants have no savings at all. In terms of the safety net, there isn’t one. Whilst many of us are cautiously optimistic about the vaccination programme, the ending of the furlough scheme looms for more than five million people in October. It poses new risks to those in insecure and uncertain jobs. The economic tail of Covid19 will wag for years and probably decades with many housing associations already reporting increases in rent arrears.
At Your Own Place we work to sustain tenancies and prevent homelessness. With a starting point of equality, we create workshops for people who are as diverse, worthy, talented, frustrated and experienced as any of us. Who hasn’t sat in dull training because it doesn’t suit our learning style? The need to adapt, keep it engaging, manage diverse styles and overcome barriers is just as present in our tenancy sustainment work.
Nowhere is it more tested than in our group delivery. In groups of just eight (and six online) we deliver Tenancy & Independent Living Skills Plus (TILS+ or DigiTILS+). We extend our value of equality into taking an asset-based approach. We leave assumptions at the door. There is no cynicism and we are relentlessly upbeat (whilst acknowledging and empathising when life is unfair). We deliver group work that builds on what people do know and can do rather than when things have gone wrong or they have picked up a label not of their choosing.
Notwithstanding the importance of managing risk, as an independent organisation our strength is starting with a level playing field. There’s no backstory, no history of rent arrears or the big dog. These are the kinds of things that it’s all too easy to get hung up on, blame people for and use as an excuse to label tenants ‘hard to reach’.
Our approach is to work in small groups. Mostly our facilitation doesn’t even need tables, as there’s almost no writing. In a group of tenants ages 20-60 and when your starting position is equality, the chances are they’ve collectively got the answers. We ‘simply’ facilitate the emergence and recognition of their own skills, knowledge and solutions. So whilst we measure the outcomes related to knowledge around financial skills as crucial to achieving our outcomes, the ones that matter are the ones that relate to their own confidence and faith in their own ability to solve the next problem.
In our groups the age range may equate to 100 years of shared tenancy experience. 100 years! It would be criminal for everyone else in the room not to benefit from this. What’s more it would be sheer arrogance for us to pretend we know more. Our framework of modules and thematic areas (money, housing and relationships) to work through guides the room to their own eureka moments. One person may benefit from another’s previous eviction experience or a tenant’s knowledge of a nearby debt agency that helped their mum out. This is peer learning at its absolute best.
Over 87% of our trainees report increased tenancy skills and 82% improved understanding of their bills. Perhaps most importantly we have 94% retention on our workshops – building the relationships and human contact that has been lost over the last year. The case for group work is strong. Stronger against a backdrop of a Housing White Paper advocating for an empowering approach to working with tenants. The case for values and independently-led tenancy sustainment group work is the strongest it’s ever been.
To find out more contact firstname.lastname@example.org mob 07530 028446