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How WHA is supporting its tenants to navigate the world of benefits

The impact of the hugely controversial Universal Credit - and particularly its housing element - has been highlighted many times since its introduction six years ago.

Housing benefit that was traditionally paid directly to landlords is now given straight to claimants under Universal Credit (UC), in an attempt to encourage “real world” independence. However, the lengthy wait for the initial payments and the monthly system in arrears has resulted in many tenants struggling to budget, especially at time of benefits cuts.

A 2018 BBC Panorama investigation revealed the average rent arrears for UC claimants stood at £663, nearly two and half times more than under the previous system.

Earlier this year, Citizens Advice revealed almost half of those it helps with UC (49%) were in arrears.

And a report by National Federation of ALMOs and the Association of Retained Council Housing in 2018 noted the worrying trend of families with no history of rent arrears being driven into debt, with 40% of UC households in rent arrears.

As one of the first areas in the early roll-out, Warrington has experienced its full effects.

Warrington Housing Association (WHA) has chosen to tackle the issue proactively to give its residents peace of mind and to avoid the cost of spiralling arrears to themselves and tenants.

From regular expert updates on the WHA website to visiting tenants at home to go through what benefits are available to them - in many cases, they are not claiming everything that they are entitled to -  WHA’s Money Advice Officer Steven Higham and his team works with tenants on debt, benefits and Universal Credit, and budgeting.

In the last 12 month he has helped 129 residents access information and advice on benefits and debt – helping them gain a total of £320,711.54 in additional benefits, grants or money saved on debt repayments.

Andrew and Eileen, WHA residents, said: “Steven came to visit us and explained what we were entitled to. He helped us complete all the application forms, made sure everything was processed correctly and kept in contact with us every step of the way. We couldn’t have navigated the benefits system without the fantastic help we received from Warrington Housing Association’s money adviser.”

He is supported by RentSense software brought in by WHA to identify people who might be at risk of falling into arrears using algorithms and predictive technology so they can support them before they get into too much trouble.

It also greatly reduces housing officers’ caseload admin enabling them to focus on other tasks.

Another WHA tenant Ms Hestletine benefited in WHA’s proactive approach to the financial stability of its residents, added: “I’m so grateful to Warrington Housing Association for reaching out to me to make sure I’m claiming my full benefit entitlement.”

It is essential housing associations take steps to tackle this issue before it becomes a spiralling crisis at a time when money is short for residents and organisations alike.