After years of stalking the local Housing Benefits Manager at landlord meetings, he graciously succumbed and it was a privilege to be invited to talk to his agents at their team meeting. I realised that taking 20 agents off the trading floor for an hour on a weekday is not done without good cause so I had to make sure I produced something worth listening to.
The talk centred around communication between housing benefit, tenants and landlords. Most landlords who accept the LHA claimants were cut out of the claiming process loop back in April 2008 when Central Government decided to bring in set LHA rates (good) and pay them direct to tenants (bad).
As I posted here about past dealings with Housing Benefit, the old process worked for everyone. Since April 2008 it’s been my mission to help the local HB department understand and feel my distress at being cast out of the communication loop, leaving me wandering lost and lonely in the sea of benefit claimants and their lies about not being paid “by Housin’” for weeks on end. I vowed that, if the council didn’t want to help me, then I didn’t want to house LHA claimants – so there.
Unfortunately, this strategy didn’t work for long as I really like LHA tenants; they’re stayers, make the HMO a home by washing the tea towels regularly, report any suspicious goings on and are happy to wait in for the plumber. Indeed, to quote Ben Reeve-Lewis: 95.6% of landlords indicated that they would likely rent their properties to tenants on HB if rents were paid directly to landlords (source: Landlord Accreditation Scheme Survey).
The meeting aimed to examine the communication methods between the 3 parties (landlords, tenants, HB) and to share experiences from our respective frontlines. I’d noticed improvements to the speed of claim processing and service levels which has been helped by the setting of LHA rates. E.g. In the past one tenant would be awarded £70.53pw, another £73.04 and another £62.50 but with apparently similar circumstances! The LHA rate for a room in a shared house is set at £67pw and I can then help the tenant to budget for the top up of around £13-£18pw.
One of the other points that I wasn’t sure if the council were aware is that of illiteracy. I’ve only recently discovered one of my tenants is completely illiterate (hence never receiving a text from him) and another 3 semi-literate; which basically means, they open the letter, scan for numbers to indicate dates and money then chuck the rest in their bedside table top drawer in case the words are important. Indeed, according to the Daily Mail 1 in 5 adults struggle to read (March 2012).
We examined the letter layouts, methods of contact, etc. and the agents have found that phoning the tenants to request more information or clarity is far quicker than writing to them – a service I think even the tenants are pleasantly surprised at!
The team told me about the local Credit Union service which visits the front office once a week. One of the tenants paid £50 for a £100, 2 week payday loan and I was livid – if he’d come to me I would’ve only charged him £25 interest, but think that would make me a loan shark. I’ve sent them all a letter, included the CU leaflet and it appears a lot of them hadn’t taken any notice of it either but at least it’s an alternative to Payday Loans.
I came out realising Housing Benefit are just people trying to do a job. Considering the depth of knowledge, experience and ability to deal with the general public which is required of them, I don’t think it’s a particularly well paid job. On top of this they’re facing cuts to their department if Mr Cameron & Co insist on introducing Universal Credit which will have the added factors of
a) making people feel isolated and confused if they aren’t able to have a face to face conversation with an agent personally dealing with their case
b) disincline landlords to take LHA at all as they’ll be no safety net if the rent’s not paid
c) embarrassing LHA claimants if they can’t read or don’t have access to a computer
d) the Under 25s will be busy looking for parents to live with, because we know how easy THEY are to lose, and if they can’t find any, will spend their days desperately trying to avoid street sleeping.
Brilliant, Mr C, you and your government alone will soon be able to bring to life George Orwell’s musings and create a world based on Animal Farm and 1984. You could even adopt his motto: All Animals Are Equal But Some Are More Equal Than Others. If Universal Credit is designed to tackle Benefit Scroungers, how are you getting on with limiting the public money spent on your in-house Expenses Benefit Scroungers?
If you’re going to manage an HMO, make your life easier by getting to know the local Council’s Housing Benefit and Environmental Health Teams; we share the same “customers” and common goals – creating long term tenancies in decent, safe houses.