The Tenancy Support Service at Sovereign helps residents negotiate the complexities of the welfare benefit system, understand budgeting and generally maximise their income. Our role as a housing association is to provide strong communities and help our residents sustain their tenancies – and our Tenancy Support Service plays an important role in achieving this.
In my four years working within the service as a tenancy support advisor (TSA) I’ve seen lots of changes but Universal Credit has been the biggest challenge. We estimate that we’ll have 9,300 live Universal Credit cases by 2020. And of the cases we’ve got at the moment, 67% are in arrears. So we’re already starting to see just how much of an impact Universal Credit could have.
Over the last few months I’ve had to adapt to my region (Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Swindon) becoming a full service area. Here are just a few of the things I’ve learnt so far:
1. We’re starting from scratch
Legacy benefits have been around for so long that there’s generally an unwritten knowledge in communities of how they work. With Universal Credit, this just isn’t there.
I find that even though people are engaging with Universal Credit online, it’s still an abstract idea. It’s easy to go to your meeting with your work coach and make all the right noises but actually leave not really understanding or taking on board what it is.
That’s often where we come in. Our role is now more educational and it’s essential that we build in this time to help people understand and access it all.
2. We’re all in this together
The only way to stay on track with Universal Credit is to work together and keep talking (both with colleagues and residents). That means thinking about a strategy across teams and adopting new ways of working. We’ve got a great team of TSAs across our divisions and making use of everyone’s support, guidance and expertise is crucial.
I’m really lucky that I’ve also got a great local Income team who completely understand my role. Universal Credit has only strengthened the connection between us. We have joint meetings and I attend their team meeting. We talk through what my pressures are, what their pressures are and how we can best work together.
We prioritise Universal Credit cases because they can have the biggest impact on our residents and on our rent arrears. It’s been a case of agreeing where we can refer on to other partners like the Citizens Advice Bureau and where it’s more appropriate for me to work with somebody, because of engagement issues, for example.
3. If we fail to prepare, we’re preparing to fail
If you offer Universal Credit support in your organisation, it’s a good idea to equip other people to deal with it too. At some point Universal Credit will be the norm and it’s better for a range of people to have some level of knowledge rather than it all being held within one or two specialists.
That’s why I ask income officers in my team to speak to some residents about Universal Credit directly. I’m trying to help them build up their ability to deal with cases and their awareness of common pitfalls. I want them to see something on a rent account and know that it’s likely to be because of X, Y or Z.
I also let my colleagues know when I find a new form or resource that can save us time. It’s about making sure that we all learn together.
4. Keeping up to date is essential
When I’m not at work, any news about welfare benefits and Universal Credit catches my eye and I always have a read. But at work, I have a few go-to websites which I check either weekly or fortnightly for updates. Housing Systems is a great resource because it’s got sections on UC and welfare reform and it’s all really up to date. Inside Housing helps me get the wider picture and see what other housing associations are doing.
I also attend the Wiltshire Money Forum which meets four times a year. All the support agencies come together and it’s a brilliant pool of knowledge, with high level council executives also offering updates. Sometimes there are also specific events run by housing associations and I’ve attended one at Aster. I’d really recommend taking these opportunities to discuss things and get the word out there. Everyone is facing the same challenges, so it makes sense to work together where we can.
5. We can really make a difference
We’re so happy that over the last year the Tenancy Support Service has achieved a 98% customer satisfaction rate. I love helping people sort out what seem like insurmountable problems to them and it’s great that residents value what we do too.
At the moment Universal Credit is one of these seemingly insurmountable problems but, if we keep investing in our residents with tenancy support and employment and training, I’m confident we’ll get there. But for now, it’s 820+ Universal Credit residents supported and counting.