Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Housing Associations Respond to Wirral Bedroom Tax Activists

Wirral Combat The Bedroom Tax have so far received three email responses to their appeal for local housing associations to make their position on the bedroom tax clear. Each housing association was invited to send a representative to one of the group's meetings, but each declined. The emails from Riverside, Wirral Partnership Homes and Symphony Housing are reproduced below.

I am writing in response to your recent open letter, entitled Axe the Bedroom Tax which was emailed to a number of Housing Associations operating in the Wirral. I am sorry that I was unable to attend your recent open meeting in Wallasey, however we didn’t find out about in time to make arrangements to attend. If you would like to discuss the bedroom tax in more detail, I would be more than happy to meet a representative of your group. Please let me know.

Like you, Riverside is deeply concerned about the impact of the bedroom tax on tenants’ incomes, and the wider effect on communities. We will continue to campaign against this highly damaging and unfair measure, and wish you well in your work.

We have received a number of similar requests for information and thought it would be helpful to set out our position clearly.

Campaigning: Riverside (along with many of our tenants) campaigned intensively against the introduction of the bedroom tax in its current form. This included:  issuing a series Parliamentary briefings; meeting Ministers, members of the opposition, constituency MPs and Members of the House of Lords; commissioning research into the impact on tenants (quoted in Parliament); and working with the media to raise general awareness.

We have taken a pragmatic stance, supporting Lord Best’s amendment to the Welfare Reform Bill, which would have adopted a more generous definition of under-occupation, allowing an extra bedroom. This would have reduced the number of tenants affected by 75% - a much more manageable challenge – whilst recognising the need to tackle higher levels of under-occupation in a measured way.

We still believe that this is the best way forward and will continue to campaign for a change in the definition of under-occupation.

Supporting Tenants: We have been running a major communications initiative over the past year called The B!G Changes. This has focused on contacting tenants who are affected by the bedroom tax by mail, phone and through face to face meetings, and we have now engaged with over 6,000 tenants, around 90% of those affected. We have offered clear advice about options, as well as more specialist money and affordable warmth advice.

Our local teams are able to offer a range of support options to tenants. They have access to increased resources to assist tenants with removal costs for downsizing moves (depending on circumstances), and we are active members of two national schemes helping tenants to ‘swap’ their homes. Whilst we know that there is a general shortage of smaller properties (especially 1 beds), this varies by area. Overall we estimate that around 1500 tenants currently affected by the bedroom tax are likely to want to downsize to 1 bedroom properties. Around 1,000 become available for re-letting each year.

We have also boosted our money advice team, taking on 12 additional members of staff. Already this team has helped tenants claim over £2 million each year in extra benefits, and reduce their arrears by over £200,000. A specialist in-house affordable warmth service is available on Merseyside, providing vital money-saving advice on reducing fuel bills and practical assistance for tenants wanting to move from pre-paid meter arrangements etc. We also have an active programme to help tenants into employment and volunteering opportunities and in the past year we have helped 521 people into work.

Collecting the rent: Collecting the rent is essential if Riverside is to continue to provide high quality services and build much needed homes. Our approach needs to be fair to all our tenants - whether they receive housing benefit of meet their housing costs themselves – and it has been agreed with tenant representatives.

We have looked at our approach to income management in the light of welfare reform and discussed it with tenant representatives and our Board. It places a real emphasis on responsibility for paying the rent, whilst aiming to sustain tenancies and support vulnerable tenants. We think it is balanced, and we are not proposing to make major changes, using a consistent approach whatever reason rent arrears have arisen.

The main change we are introducing as a response to welfare reform is boosting support for tenants, whilst making sure our teams intervene as early as possible where tenants are falling behind with their rent. This includes supporting tenants claim benefits, and assisting those who are appealing decisions around benefit awards and discretionary housing payments. We have provided more training and support to staff, so that they can help tenants facing the challenges of welfare reform where we can.

Re-designating properties

We do not believe that re-designating properties is a viable way of helping tenants escape the bedroom tax. Re-designation would lead to a reduction in rent, threatening services to existing tenants.

Under regulations, it is for local authorities to determine the number of bedrooms in a property, and in doing this they have requested information from Riverside and other landlords. We have answered factually, stating the number of bedrooms recorded on the tenancy agreement.

In addition, most housing associations have borrowed money to build new homes, using existing homes as security. To re-designate properties could potentially lead to a breach of lending conditions, with very serious financial consequences.

We hope this information is of assistance. If you are aware of any tenants who are worried about the impact of the bedroom tax on them, please encourage them to contact our customer service centre on 0845 1110000.

Yours Sincerely

Neil Townsend – Director – The Riverside Group

Dear all

I am replying to your open letter which you handed to us during our discussions following your protest at WPH’s offices on Monday 8 April. 

As discussed on Monday I can confirm that the implementation of the Housing Benefit changes for households who are under-occupying their current tenancies will have a major impact upon this organisation.  Those who under-occupy by one bedroom will have their Housing Benefit reduced by 14 per cent and those who under-occupy by two bedrooms will have a reduction of 25 per cent.

Speaking to all Tenants Potentially affected by the Housing Benefit Changes

WPH currently has 12,170 tenancies across Wirral and around 2,200 of our households will be affected by the under-occupation charge.

We have been contacting all of the tenants who are affected to raise awareness to the changes and to discuss the various options with them.  From our discussions with these households, we have found the following:

26% are interested in moving to smaller accommodation (234 tenants)
41% are not willing to move (372 tenants)
43% will look to pay the charge (386 tenants)
25% of tenants have been referred to Wirral Council to consider Discretionary Housing Payment (223 tenants)

WPH has been working to re-house those who wish to move and to date our project team has re-housed over 120 tenants. However, 117 households (13%) have advised us that they are not willing to pay the charge.

Please be aware that these are figures for WPH only.  From the Council’s figures, we understand that a total of around 4,500 households in all social rented housing across Wirral will be affected by the under-occupation charge.

WPH is working on a number of fronts to advise our tenants.  We have included articles in our tenants’ newsletters and provided useful information including a benefits calculator on our website. 

We are concerned that some people may still not be aware of the changes and we are distributing an information DVD, highlighting that those affected should contact WPH.  The awareness-raising film is also on our website. We will soon be undertaking a Welfare Reform road show across all of our estates in Wirral, again to encourage those who have not yet contacted us to come along so that we can discuss their situation. 

Access to the Internet to make Claims

It was raised about some of our tenants’ ability to have access to the internet to make benefit claims.  We have started a digital champions scheme with our local tenants’ groups to help train people up in the use of PCs and the internet, helping our residents build IT skills. The first scheme is at Courtney Park, Woodward Estate, Rock Ferry. Our new offices in Hamilton Street will also have ICT equipment for use by tenants and we signpost tenants to libraries and One-Stop Shops which have ICT access. We have also provided computer skills training, via our colleagues at Wirral Metropolitan College to over 205 of our tenants and this is an ongoing programme.

The trades’ union movement is also involved in providing much-valued equipment and skills training for our tenants as we develop our Digital Inclusion Strategy.

Financial Advice

As part of our approach, we wish to assist our tenants to better manage their money by improving their money management skills.  We have supplemented our Welfare Benefit Advisors with two new posts of Money Management Advisors to provide direct support to customers who are struggling to meet their financial commitments.  Our welfare benefit officers have managed to get our tenants around £200,000 in unclaimed benefits in one month. In 2012 they claimed £1,258,742 in additional benefits for tenants. Thirty tenants have been trained as “champions” in welfare benefits awareness and over 100 have attended “money management” courses.  We would encourage tenants to contact us.

Re-housing

In terms of re-housing households who have requested a move to smaller accommodation, as I stated on Monday, there is a shortage of smaller property vacancies with all 12 of the housing providers who participate in the Property Pool Plus choice-based lettings scheme in the Wirral.  We are talking to our colleagues in the other housing associations and at Wirral Council to consider how we may ensure households who wish to move due to the under-occupation charge can be assisted under the current scheme.  WPH has set up a team to deal with those households requiring re-housing and to help them with the practicalities of moving home.  We will arrange and pay for removals and the disconnection and reconnection of utilities.  We are also setting up a mutual exchange database, putting households in touch with each other if they wish to swap homes of different sizes. 


In terms of the specific points you raise in your letter:

Reclassifying Properties Bedrooms

Like all registered housing providers, WPH has to abide by regulations to bring our rents in line for the target rent set for the area.  The rate of increase is prescribed by central government.  Our 30-year business plan, which includes a completed £166m investment programme to bring up properties to the ‘decent homes standard’, is built on this formula and has taken account of existing property sizes. All future services and property improvements are funded from this plan.

WPH has considered the case for reclassifying properties with small bedrooms but, because of the impact it would have on our income stream and in turn the viability of our business plan, we have no large scale plans to reclassify at this time.  We are aware that KHT has classified over 560 properties which followed a review of their stock that indicated that the properties had been incorrectly identified as being larger than they actually were and where they had a complete lack of demand.  WPH has come across a small number of homes where third bedrooms have been reduced in size following investment works such as locating gas central heating boilers and the installation of vertical lifts, and we have already adjusted the number of bedrooms accordingly. If we come across similar examples we will consider reclassifying these cases as well.

If we were to reclassify all properties to a lesser number of bedrooms such as a three bedroom to a two bedroom for those affected by the HB changes as you have requested then we would have to do this for all similar properties including those that would be occupied by those in employment.  This would involve around 8,000 of our homes and this would have a major impact on WPH with the reduction in rent income over the next 30 years of the business plan.  Such a reduction in income would bankrupt us and we would be in breach of our covenants with our funders.  In such a situation WPH would have to seek a rescue through the Government’s Homes and Communities Agency.  The Board and management team of WPH could not knowingly allow such a situation to happen.

There would also be implications for those waiting for housing on the Property Pool Plus housing waiting list.  There would then be a shortage of two- and three-bedroomed properties to re-house families or other larger households as they would have been reclassified to two- and one-bedroomed properties.  This would make the housing situation in the borough much worse.

WPH’s Approach to Court Action and Evictions

WPH will continue to be as supportive as we possibly can be to assist all tenants who are struggling to pay their rent. As highlighted above, we have an in-house provision for welfare benefit advice, we have a very good debt advice partner to refer cases to, we are about to recruit two Money Advisors to assist with budgeting and we have dedicated staff assisting tenants who wish to downsize.  Our income team continues to be professional and competent in providing assistance to avoid eviction.    

When we do come across a tenant who clearly cannot afford to maintain their tenancy, we will discuss all the alternatives on an individual basis and in the case of the under- occupation charge, that is likely to include discussions about downsizing where appropriate accommodation is available.

We will work with tenants who are appealing against a reduction in their benefit and who may be awaiting decisions on Discretionary Housing Payments.  WPH has referred 223 tenants so far to the Council for DHP.

However, the Board of WPH has a clear duty to protect the long-term financial wellbeing of the organisation to ensure that the homes and services provided to all tenants can be maintained.  WPH staff will assist tenants but, ultimately, tenants will be expected to pay their rent. If, however, they do fail to pay their rent despite the support offered by WPH staff, we will have little alternative but to consider applying for possession via the County Court but only as a last resort.  On this basis WPH cannot give a categorical assurance that it will never evict anyone but we will have been looking to give as much assistance as we can before getting to such a stage.

I will not be in a position to send a representative to your evening meeting on Wednesday 10 April but, hopefully, these written comments and my verbal comments made on Monday outline the position of WPH on this issue for you.

Yours sincerely

Brian Simpson
Chief Executive

Hello,

Thank you for your invitation to this evening’s meeting in Wallasey (Wednesday, 10 April). Unfortunately, we’re unable to attend, but we wanted to make sure you had a response from us to your email.

We agree that the Government’s Bedroom Tax is unfair and, like you, we are deeply concerned that it will penalise our customers.

From the on-going help and support we are providing to people, we fully understand the impact this will have upon them. We are continuing to do whatever we can to assist them to manage the additional financial pressures that have come as a result.

Over the past two years we’ve lobbied hard to persuade the Government that their approach was unfair, but the Government chose not to listen. We continue to call upon them to think again and we’d urge everyone affected to raise it with their constituency MP.

We are aware that many of our tenants are already struggling to make ends meet and understand that they are very worried about how they will cope. Over recent weeks and months we have contacted thousands of our customers to offer support. We have staff dedicated to helping people understand the benefit changes and we are doing everything we can to assist. This includes supporting tenants with advice on budgeting and financial matters, as well as applications for Discretionary Housing Payments, assisting people to save money on household energy, and making sure people are claiming the benefits to which they are entitled.

Re-classification of properties is not practicable as a real solution to the Bedroom Tax.

We will continue to support all our customers who fall into arrears and arrange suitable payment plans. Our rents are below market levels and we have arrears policies that set out the importance of helping to support anyone who is struggling with payment and to make ends meet. 

We encourage people to speak with us about their situation so we can help in any way that we can. However, our customers rely on us to collect rent to pay for the services that we deliver, and we will take recovery action against anybody that refuses to engage with us. We urge anyone who is struggling to meet their payments, or who may be unsure of how the changes will affect them, to contact us as soon as possible.

If any of our tenants are worried or need our support, they can call us on these numbers:

Liverpool Housing Trust - 01928 796000
Beechwood Ballantyne Community Housing Association - 0151 606 6262
Contour Homes - 0345 602 1120
Best wishes,

Richard Bramwell
Symphony Housing Group Communications

On behalf of Liverpool Housing Trust, Beechwood Ballantyne Community Housing Association and Contour Homes – part of Symphony Housing Group
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