Claiming Universal Credit during the pandemic: what more can housing associations do to help?

Justin Freeman, 10 August 2021

In his foreword to the Charter for Social Housing Residents, the Prime Minister urges us to listen to and work with tenants, decrying “the idea that social tenants are less worthy of respect or can be ignored when their views are inconvenient”.

Housing associations take that challenge seriously and are responding vigorously, many embracing the National Housing Federation’s (NHF) Together with Tenants Charter as a key tool in strengthening relationships with tenants and residents.

During the pandemic, housing associations have been anchor institutions within communities. They’ve helped to house the homeless, kept sheltered and extra-care tenants safe, delivered prescriptions and food parcels, volunteered to support the vaccination programme, and made countless welfare calls. We’ve kept homes safe and well-maintained, living and breathing our social purpose.

At ForHousing, we’re passionate about, and committed to, ensuring we involve tenants at every step along our journey to become the best landlord we can be. We’re working hard to co-design our future service offers with our tenants and residents as we navigate the world post-pandemic.

Alongside creating large scale community conversations, we’re strengthening the tenant voice within our governance structures and enhancing our engagement with what tenants tell us every day through routine interactions and when they seek redress when things go wrong. We’re committed to making real change in areas that matter most to our tenants.

But, of course, when we’re having these conversations, we find out so much more.

It’s hard to believe that the legislation that enabled the rollout of Universal Credit was enacted almost a decade ago. Much of the intervening time has been given over to a cautious approach of testing and learning to roll Universal Credit out over a number of years. During the pandemic, however, the experience has been radically different with the number of social housing tenants claiming Universal Credit having increased by 46% (March 2020 to February 2021) to over one million people. This explosion in demand seriously tested systems and the people that administrate them.

The NHF and housing association partners have taken the opportunity to build on the work which led to the ‘No Time to Wait’ report published in June 2020, and further examine tenants’ experience of claiming Universal Credit during the pandemic.

More than 3,500 tenants across eight housing associations responded, and the result of the large-scale survey is the new report ‘Universal Credit: claiming during the coronavirus pandemic’.

Tenants were very open about their experiences, providing lots of feedback, both positive and negative, as well as revealing emotional and physical struggles. Of the people surveyed, 1 in 10 said the hardship experienced while on Universal Credit had given them a new health condition and 1 in 5 were feeling ‘completely anxious’ yesterday. Some of the individual responses prompted immediate intervention from participating housing associations.

With over 830 responses from ForHousing tenants alone, I’m committed to putting that information at the heart of shaping our future support offer for people claiming Universal Credit. I want us to be able to show tenants that we have implemented change based on their experiences and their suggestions.

As I’ve said before, we find out so much more when we hold conversations with tenants. As well as things housing associations can do for people claiming Universal Credit, this research has also revealed positives about the system and service and areas for improvement for the Department for Work and Pensions and the government.

I hope that ministers, officials and housing associations find the report helpful and feel the same commitment to taking action in response to what tenants are telling us, putting the Prime Minister’s words into action.