Practitioner Article Tenancy Sustainment not just the latest buzz word!

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1 Practitioner Article Tenancy Sustainment not just the latest buzz word! Written by Janice Conner, Housing Services Manager, Link Housing Association Ltd March All rights reserved. This document is only for your personal, non-commercial use. You may not copy, reproduce, republish, post, distribute, transmit or modify it in any way. This document contains information and policies that were correct at the time of publication.

2 Tenancy Sustainment Not just the latest buzz word! Janice Conner, Housing Service Manager at Link Housing Association explains how Link housing embraced a culture of tenancy sustainment and the successes they have achieved. Introduction Tenancy sustainment is nothing new...it s why the majority of people want to work in housing. It certainly appears to be the new buzz word, with a variety of agencies offering seminars, conferences, workshops, training session etc...we re even getting measured on it...so what is it about and why is it important to Link. We have always been committed to preventing homelessness, but somehow, with the focus on Key Performance Indicators(KPI) and targets to reduce void times and arrears, we lost sight of the real outcomes that we wanted to achieve i.e. keeping tenants in their homes and reducing the number of tenancies that failed. We needed to redefine our aims, and get staff and tenants working together to achieve this. We accepted and agreed the definition of Tenancy Sustainment which was given by Shelter (1) Preventing a tenancy from coming to a premature end by providing the necessary information, advice, and support for tenants to be able to maintain their tenancies Determining Our Starting Point! In order to determine how we were to help keep tenants in their homes and reduce the number of failed tenancies we needed to review what we were actually doing in practice, our current processes and procedures and other related strategies and initiatives that were already in place. We also needed to establish a baseline to measure against - this would determine the success, or not, of the strategy, i.e. actual tenancy failure and the financial cost to Link. We carried out an exercise which estimated the average costs of evictions and abandonments. This took into account, average void costs, legal fees and arrears. We did not take into account staff resources, nor did we look at the wider/social costs to local authority, the family in the failed tenancy or the impact on the community. The table below show the number of evictions and abandonments recorded in our 2008/09 Annual Performance Statistical Return. 2

3 Ave cost per tenancy Total Abandonments 83 2, ,048 Evictions 43 4, ,026 Total ,074 How we were performing In the Scottish Housing Best Value Network 2008/09, we benchmarked favourably against other landlords for most of our Key Performance Indicators, but not so for evictions and abandonment. Link had the 6th highest number of recovery of repossession orders and the 4 th highest number of abandoned properties...not a position on the leader board that was to be celebrated! We carried out detailed analysis on the demographics of the tenants who had abandoned their tenancy or had been evicted, however, there were no obvious patterns or trends indicated. We concluded that a tenant could get into difficulties at any time during their tenancy; we also concluded that a tenancy was as likely to fail whether they applied directly to us or through the homeless route via a local authority nomination or section 5 referral. We did however, find that a significant number of tenancies ended within 12 months (72), and, whilst there were no demographic trends, we were able to pinpoint hot spots in particular locations. What did we do? We looked at what other organisations were doing not a lot at this point, only Glasgow Housing Association had a published Strategy (2). We sought the views of our staff, to utilise their experience and to ensure their buy-in as we identified this as being crucial to the success of this initiative. We also liaised closely with our tenants, our board members, and other subsidiaries within the Link Group and ensured their views were taken on board. As a result of this consultation - in 2009 we developed our Tenancy Sustainability Strategy, which detailed our aims and objectives. The Strategy had two key objectives: 3

4 Objective 1 Objective 2: To reduce Homelessness Supporting Tenancies An action plan was produced detailing what needed to be done, with associated timelines, and a Sustainability Working Party was formed - made up of key staff - to look at how to take the initiatives and pilot implementations forward. We also adopted a spend to save ethos and Link Housing s board approved a budget for The Tenancy Sustainment Fund, to be spent on appropriate initiatives. What has worked Getting it right from the start One key message which came through was the need to establish a good relationship with new tenants from the start. You only get one opportunity to do this and it was important that we got this right. Assessment of needs We carried out a survey of all new tenants who had been housed within a twelve month period and we asked them what they thought of Link, the application process, the sign up and follow up visit. We also asked the question: We are considering assessing tenants at the start of their tenancy to see if we can offer/source any support. Do you think this would be good idea? Overwhelmingly, 98% of the tenants said yes, they thought it would be a good idea...this is what we now do. We have an assessment form which asks trigger questions (assessing furniture requirements, money/debt advice, energy advise, any support requirements etc) which ensures that everything is in place for tenants to have a positive start and hopefully a sustained tenancy. This has been hugely successful and resulted in numerous referrals both to our in-house welfare rights and energy advice team and to external agencies. Pre tenancy Visits Link operate a choice based letting system, which puts the onus on the tenant to actively bid for a particular property, Traditionally with choice lettings no pre-allocations interview is required. This however, does not allow assessments to be made for any support needs or discussions with the applicant on the responsibilities of landlord and tenant. To overcome this we have developed structured pre-tenancy visits along with a post tenancy visit, carried out within 14 days of the tenancy starting, to ensure there have been no problems for tenants settling in. 4

5 Communication with applicants/tenants We reviewed all our allocation correspondence; to remove jargon, ensuring everything was written in plain English making the letters less formal and readily understood. We have, in conjunction with 6 other RSL partners, produced a Tenancy DVD which will be used at the start of a tenancy and can be referred to at any time during the tenancy. This uses innovative animation features, which tenants agreed was the most easily understood format. The DVD includes subtitles and is translated into three languages. Provision of recycled furniture Many local authorities have furniture initiatives and we produced maps of recycling centre locations and outlined products available so all frontline staff are aware e.g. starter packs, carpets, paint etc. Where this is not available and it is likely that the tenants will not be a position to get a community care grant, an application can be made to our Tenancy Sustainment Fund (We work closely with Social Enterprise Clydebank, who can provide furniture packs from 300). What has worked Keeping a close relationship It s not just new tenants who struggle to cope. Our Housing Officers are out on estates 80% of their time and face to face contact is key to forging good relationships - tenants get to know and trust their Housing Officers Arrears Control Early intervention has always been key to good arrears control, but an arrears visit is only part of the picture. Housing Officers are able to pick up more than just financial issues during a visit and we have made numerous referrals to both internal and external agencies. Joint visits are also arranged with our Welfare Rights Team at certain stages of our arrears procedure to ensure that any tenants in difficulty are claiming all benefits they are entitled to. Annual Tenancy Visits Although there are location hotspots our statistics have shown that tenancy failure is not restricted to any particular group. To ensure that we were taking account of all our tenants, we introduced Annual Tenancy Visits (ATV) over a 3 years rolling program. This ensures that a visit is made to every tenant at least every three years. The purpose of these visits is twofold, firstly to ensure that any issues with their tenancy and neighbourhood are identified and to discuss what advice services and support we can offer/source, if required. Secondly, we gather Equality and Diversity information which we use to ensure that when we carry out Equality and Diversity Impact Assessments our information is up to date and 5

6 complies with our Equalities and Diversities Policy. Just as important, it again allows face to face contact where staff and tenants get to put a face to a name. What has worked Partnership working We cannot do this on our own. We work in partnership with our colleagues who provide Welfare Rights Services and Older Persons Advice Service and Link Living, who provide a variety of support to our tenants. We have excellent relationships with Local Authorities, Police, local voluntary agents and other RSL s. The Homelessness Prevention Service As part of our partnership working initiative, Link in conjunction with 5 other RSL s in Falkirk and West Lothian were successful in obtaining Wider Action funding for a pilot project specifically aimed at offering support to tenants who were experiencing difficulties in their lives and were at risk of losing their tenancy. This has been successful and contributed to the overall reduction in evictions and abandonments Have we been successful? We think so...headline results show that the number of tenancies ending within a 12 month period has reduced from 72 to 42. The number of court actions we initiate dropped from 266 to 82. The number of abandonments has reduced by 38% and evictions by 42% over a two year period, saving approximately 175,000 whilst our arrears have remained steady, despite the economic downturn. More importantly we have prevented tenants and families from becoming homeless which was our prime objective. For many people we have stopped the cycle of tenancy failure, and we have children who do not now have to stay in temporary accommodation with the associated long term negative effects that being homeless can have. We are also stabilising our communities by reducing the void turnover. Another success has been the turnaround in culture. Change is not all about procedure and policies, most staff come into housing management to help tenants enjoy and keep their tenancies. Our structure in Link and the way we work enables Housing Officers to be out on the estate the majority of their time, talking to tenants and working in the community and doing the job they originally signed up for! Onward and upwards We are delighted with the initial results of our strategy. This year we will be reviewing our targets and looking for new initiatives to pilot and test. We will continue to work closely with 6

7 Local Authorities and other RSL s and work in partnership with any agencies that can help us build on our success. As the saying goes...whatever it takes... References (1) Shelter Research Report Tenancy Sustainment in Scotland Oct 2009 (2) Glasgow Housing Association Tenancy Sustainment Strategy and Action Plan 2007 Further information You can found out more about the Link Housing Association If you would like any further information, please send an to in the first instance. 7

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