Five ways to help your tenants with the roll-out of universal credit
The ‘full service’ version of universal credit is on its way – so what do social landlords need to be doing differently? CIH policy and practice officer Priya Thethi explores the issues.
Universal credit is probably the biggest change to the welfare system in 40 years. Landlords in every council area will now have experienced the "live service" version of it – but a different "full service" is now on its way, and indeed has already arrived in several areas.
The live form has already presented some significant challenges for tenants, and for landlords. Emerging evidence suggests that full service is going to be more challenging again, with a much wider group of claimants, and fundamentally different systems and processes.
If full service isn’t done right, it could mean serious hardship for tenants, and serious risks for your business. This means there are some lessons to re-learn, and some important factors to keep in mind when you’re supporting your tenants through universal credit.
Informing your tenants
Claimants are often caught unaware by the wait – up to six weeks – between making a claim and receiving their first payment. It’s important to make sure that your tenants know about this, and, if possible, have built up credit on their rent accounts to help them manage. This is especially important since the claims process is often delayed by administrative errors – sometimes by several weeks.
There is the option of claiming an advance payment, if claimants can show that they’re experiencing hardship because of a delayed payment. This isn’t always well-publicised, so make sure that your tenants are aware of it if needs be.
Be aware, though, that advance payments for people making new claims need to be paid back over a period of six months. If tenants are also paying back rent arrears using third party deductions, this can reduce their allowance significantly, which makes sustaining their tenancy that much harder.
If you have supported a tenant with a difficult claim, you’ll know that under live service, there was the option of a dedicated helpline for landlords.
Under full service, this option has been removed, so landlords will need to use the same route of challenge as their tenants – a helpline, or an email inbox with a response time of four working days.
As always when you’re challenging a decision, knowledge is power, so make sure that your team is clued up on the regulations. Benefits calculation software can be really helpful here.
Data sharing and disclosure
You’ll now need explicit consent to get information about a tenant’s claim. This means that your tenant will need to have explicitly stated, verbally or in writing, that they’re happy for you to receive information from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in one specific instance.
Landlords in full service areas are finding that it’s now much harder to chase up on a tenant’s claim. Some are asking their tenants to list, in their online journals, the assessment periods which they’re happy to have discussed. Others are resorting to three-way phone calls with their tenants and the DWP, or meeting their tenants in person.
Relationship-building will be invaluable here – both with your tenants and with your local partnership manager and staff on the universal credit helpline.
Planning around Alternative Payment Arrangements (APAs)
With the live service, landlords who’d successfully applied for APAs would directly receive a tenant’s housing costs as and when the tenant received their payment.
Under full service, this has been replaced with batch processing of APAs, so that landlords receive payments every four weeks. Landlords are reporting that this has made processing significantly harder, and delayed rent payments by several weeks. At Halton Housing Trust, only 20% of full service claimants use APAs, compared to 42% of live service claimants.
Consider how your organisation can support your tenants to make regular rent payments without APAs, for example, by supporting them to set up direct debits.
Reviewing your tenancy support offer
Supporting your tenants will become increasingly important as a wider group of people begin claiming universal credit.
As claims are managed online in full service, digital inclusion will become especially important. Budgeting support is also a common request, particularly for claimants with variable income, and therefore variable payments.
You’ll also find that a small proportion of your tenants will have much higher support needs than the rest; at Curo, 20% of claimants need an average of seven hours of support each. A robust process, such as pre-tenancy triage, can help you make sure that all of your tenants get the support they need at the earliest possible stage.
If your organisation is looking at a digital transformation programme, make sure that welfare reform is taken into account during the requirements-gathering stage. For example, sending SMS rent reminders automatically will free up valuable resource for supporting tenants in hardship.
This blog is part of a range of resources intended to help landlords respond to the introduction of full service universal credit in their area. Find out more
If you have experience of the full service roll-out, and would like to help us use it to inform our best practice guidance, contact Priya Thethi firstname.lastname@example.org.