How United Welsh has adapted money advice services to help tenants respond to unique cost of living challenges
Social housing tenants are among the worst affected by the cost of living crisis. As household bills have risen throughout the year, the money advice team at United Welsh has seen increased asks for help from their communities. Here, Karen Thomas, financial inclusion manager writes how they have responded to the challenge by adapting to demand.
The money advice team at United Welsh has seen a clear difference in the support people have needed this financial year:
- referrals increased by 42% in the first quarter of this year, compared to the same period last year;
- at the time of writing, food bank referrals in the first quarter of this year were already at almost half the amount we saw for the whole of 2021;
- more people are asking for help with debts;
- 47% of our hardship fund payments awarded this financial year (to end of August) have been for support with utility costs;
- we have already spent almost 48% more on hardship payments this year to date (end of August) than for the same period last year.
A YouGov survey (commissioned by abrdn Financial Fairness Trust) of around 6,000 people conducted between 25th May and 6th June suggested Wales has been hit hardest by the current cost of living crisis. 22% of Welsh households (compared to 16% in the UK overall) have resorted to cost cutting measures as wages fail to keep pace with the rate of inflation - such as reducing the quality of the food they eat and selling and pawning possessions.
And the end is not in sight. We managed to keep our arrears levels stable during the pandemic despite the moratorium on evictions, the removal of the £20 Universal Credit uplift and other welfare changes - but the financial crises of the moment are adding considerable pressure.
The recently announced rent settlement was significantly below the rate of inflation, so any increase in income for United Welsh is going to be substantially outstripped by increases in costs.
Then we have the managed migration to Universal Credit on the horizon, which will be resource intensive as we support people through the process, so they do not risk a gap in benefit payments or the loss of transitional protections.
We are working in challenging times (how many times have we said that?) - but as a sector we are used to adapting to find a way through.
Referrals to United Welsh's money advice team increased by 42% in the first quarter of this year, compared to the same period last year
At United Welsh, we have invested more resources into the money advice team and reconfigured the service to create two sustainability officer roles. They have a much lower caseload than the other rent officers to offer a more intensive service - specifically with the aim of avoiding evictions and engaging people involved in the most complex cases. This approach has proved successful so far, with 84% of cases seeing a reduction in their arrears over the first quarter of this year, and 85% actively engaging.
We have set up a staff hardship fund which has awarded 29 people so far (again at time of writing) and expanded the remit of the team to offer in-house debt advice. This achieved £17,000 in debt write-offs for tenants in the first quarter of this year, and we continue to work closely with our colleagues in the employment team to support tenants into work to improve their financial situation overall.
Reducing service charges continues to be a keen focus, and we are working with tenants and our repairs subsidiary Celtic Horizons to eliminate, reduce or re-configure services such as cleaning, window cleaning, and grounds maintenance. We are currently identifying estates where landscaped areas can be re-designed to reduce maintenance and encourage biodiversity, and scrutinising new developments to design out service chargeable elements where possible.
As we respond to the challenges ahead, more innovative funding routes and policy coordination between sectors is needed to address the root causes that are driving poverty. Decarbonisation, for example, presents a prime opportunity for improving housing conditions and creating employment while tackling climate change.
Collaboration with other stakeholders will be crucial as we try to help people in the most financial need in the months and years ahead.