In the south Wales valleys, supporting tenants through the cost of living crisis requires a different approach
Here, Luke Takeuchi, CEO of RHA Wales, writes how the cost of living is profoundly affecting communities and colleagues in Rhondda, and how working with a wide range of local and national partners is vital to helping people through it.
We are all feeling the effects of the cost of living crisis, as prices and bills continue to stay high. But in communities like those in the Rhondda Valleys, these pressures are being felt much more acutely. No household should have to worry about where the next meal is coming from, or be presented with a choice between food or fuel - but that is the situation many are facing locally.
As a housing association we have always had a responsibility to support our tenants who need it most, and be clear on how we can help them. During recent months, we at RHA Wales have increased our focus further in this area to ensure that we understand the issues our tenants and communities are experiencing, and respond in the right way. We speak directly with tenants to find out how we can best help them; we have also opened a new community hub in Tonypandy where we hold training, activities and social events for our tenants; and we are also creating a vibrant warm space for our communities to use this winter. We want to ensure that we play our part alongside other responsible businesses in supporting the Welsh and UK governments to tackle this macro issue that we are navigating nationally.
Alongside my day job, I am a member of the Business in the Community (BITC) leadership board in Wales. BITC is a charity that brings responsible businesses together to have a positive impact: as employers, on the environment and within their local communities. As a leadership board we feel strongly that there is an opportunity for businesses across Wales to work with local authorities and voluntary organisations, and support those who are suffering most at this time.
During the summer, we held a roundtable on the cost of living crisis to discuss ways in which we can help. Board members spoke with other like-minded businesses, and our partners in Wales - including Citizens Advice Cymru, Bevan Foundation, Fareshare Cymru, as well as organisations such as NESTA Cymru - about how we can find practical solutions to this crisis together.
The feedback then was that the Welsh situation is grave, and it is going to get worse. Dr Victoria Winkler from Bevan Foundation set out its latest evidence on poverty in Wales, and it made difficult listening with some worrying trends in child poverty levels in particular. It was clear that we need to do more to support people and we need to act to fix the underlying issues that mean an increasing number of people in Wales are struggling just to get by.
At RHA Wales the nature of our business means that we are constantly in dialogue with many of our tenants on a daily basis. However, throughout 2022 we have also broadened this conversation to a wider audience with our partners in the third sector, charity sector and community voluntary groups, all of whom play a key role in supporting families and people locally. The experiences shared have been sobering and stark.
Difficulties with heating homes and rising food prices are top of the list of concerns. I’ve heard some upsetting stories of how families are struggling to make ends meet on a regular basis. Many households are faced with the prospect of eye-watering energy and grocery bills which are further rising in price week on week.
People on lower incomes simply do not have the capacity in their income to absorb such high rises. Because of these challenges, many of the local community groups in the valleys are already at full capacity, and there is an acceptance that the current situation is likely to worsen as we move into the winter.
As a housing association we are faced with the continued challenge of how we best focus our resources over the coming 12 months. Our primary aim has always been to ensure we play our part in creating new affordable housing while ensuring that our existing homes are warm, safe and to the required high standards set - which we will continue to do. This does not mean we will compromise on how we approach our additional services for tenants, but it does mean that more than ever we need to think creatively and work even more closely in partnership with other organisations.
I am also committed to our role as an employer in the area and we have worked hard to ensure that colleagues across RHA Wales are supported. We have introduced new nine-day fortnights and flexible working for all colleagues alongside our new hybrid working offer, with the intention to lighten some of the burden for colleagues in areas such as childcare costs and travel.
We are continuing to have conversations with Welsh Government colleagues too, to tell them about the challenges we are seeing on the ground, in order for them to broaden their understanding of where the biggest impact can be made with any additional funding available.
RHA Wales is just one organisation and housing associations are part of just one sector. If we are to effectively solve this current cost of living crisis we must come together as a country and as responsible businesses to do even more for those who need us most. I am confident that by working in partnership the social housing sector will thrive and be able to rise to any future challenges that come our way.