“Milk. I cannot even afford milk.”

They are the words of one of the thousands of residents who were interviewed for the report.  They are words that evoke scenes more worthy of a Dickens novel.  

For those working in social housing, they are words that should both haunt us and inspire us.  

The latest Resident Voice Index report – Cost of Living: Crunch Time – involved responses from over 5,700 residents, a record number in the series of four reports that MRI has produced. Housing associations have told us that they’ve had similarly high responses to surveys over the past few months: it’s clear that people want to talk. They want their concerns to be heard. More importantly, they want their concerns acted upon.  

The impact of debt and rising costs

The report’s headline numbers are alarming:  

  • Seven out of ten respondents reported being worse off than they were six months ago. 
  • Nearly eight out of ten were worried all or most of the time about meeting their monthly living expenses – also an increase on the previous report.  
  • Eight out of ten were in some form of debt, with almost a third having four or more sources of debt. 

If you extrapolated the number of respondents who said they were in debt and applied it across the social housing sector, this would represent 3.2 million households.  

And bear in mind that the survey was carried out in September 2022.  

  • Before the October energy price rise.  
  • Before the December cold snap.  
  • And before the impact of costs incurred at Christmas.  

For younger people, and those with children, the levels of debt were even higher. Nine out of ten residents under the age of 35 reported being in debt, while those with dependents were more likely to be unable to manage debt, to be worse off than six months ago, to not be financially resilient, and have no one to go to for help. 

The report emphasised how debt and rising costs are impacting people’s mental health: survey responses indicated that the number of people worrying all the time rose from 51% to 59%. “I have no control over the direction my life is taking,” one of the respondents said.  

Another asked: “how do I decide what is the most important? Do I decide not to pay my rent and risk losing my home? Or not pay my bills and get into trouble there? Or not buy the food I need to keep myself healthy and risk hospitalisation?” 

Residents talked about being stuck in jobs without any prospect of improving their pay. They talked about the negative impact of stories in the press about the cost-of-living crisis. They talked about not knowing where to turn to for financial support. They talked about how the UK was regressing and that the economic system was not working for those less fortunate.  

And, alarmingly, some talked about suicide.  

“I do not see any reason to continue this way.” 

These extreme thoughts manifested in the use of words like “drowning” and “sinking”, with fears that at some point in the future, they would become submerged by life. For some, this has resulted in risky behaviours that could worsen their financial situation: gambling, substance abuse, or engaging in criminal activity.  

“It seems inevitable,” the report notes, “that more people will fall into these desperate states of mind and circumstances… Responses that are implemented today could prevent many from these types of feelings and are worth deploying with urgency.” 

Five ways the social housing sector can help residents in need

What, then, can individual housing associations do? What can the sector do? What will we, at HACT, do?  

  1. Get the basics right, and get them right first time. Respondents noted that housing providers play a positive role in their communities, but the issue of repairs and maintenance undermines this reputation. Damp, cold and mould should already be top of the priority list. But this should not be to the detriment of every other repairs requests. Don’t let these become another source of worry and anxiety.  
  2. Don’t talk about giving residents a voice. It is not within our power to give someone a voice. Instead, put your effort into amplifying their voices. They are the experts in dealing with the impact of the cost-of-living crisis. How can you amplify their voices, so they can share their experiences with each other more effectively?    
  3. Talk about debt. Don’t stigmatise it. Promote examples of your residents who have coped with debt, whether through their own initiatives or as a result of your support. Promote StepChange, and PayPlan, or offer flexible rent payment plans. If you have a no-evictions policy, then tell people about it. Do what you can to reduce their anxiety.  
  4. Be creative. Did you know that some parents are spending 71% of their weekly earnings on childcare? Can you provide grants to local childcare organisations to reduce costs or encourage more residents to get into childcare careers? Similarly, residents talked about being stuck in jobs with no prospects. Can you invest in more employment grants, to enable people to retrain, go back to college, to set up community interest companies?  
  5. Use data. We know that some housing associations are already doing this – segmenting their residents to understand needs, and not just on the traditional basis of age, location, or gender. Using a data-driven approach will enable you to target services more effectively, test interventions and measure their impact. Sovereign is using data outputs from the Resident Resilience Insight tool, alongside internal data and data from Community Insight to understand the needs of different resident segments and plan services accordingly.  

Finally, look at Better Social Housing Review and how you can use any of your existing community assets more effectively. As the recent Better Social Housing Review recommended, community hubs can and should play a critical role in providing a space for community connections and the social infrastructures that a person can access. Could they, for example, become a space to store and host local school uniform swaps? Could they become a space where you provide free meals once a week? Could you build on existing connections with food banks so they can deliver wrap-around support as well?  

How HACT can help you get involved

From our perspective at HACT, we will continue to share best practices, through our free biweekly online cost of living series as well as through our website. We will also carry on hosting regular regional network meetings to promote locally-based working, as well as our thematic networks – and will be launching new networks this year focusing on green skills, as well as another on food insecurity in London. We have launched a data assessment tool and support service, so you can improve the way your organisation uses data – allowing you to segment your residents and identify those most in need. Additionally, we launched another fuel fund in January in Scotland, to help residents clear major fuel debts. 

HACT also supports social landlords, local organisations and communities to work together to improve opportunities and outcomes for older people in three areas – Southwark, Bradford and Bournemouth – and will be using the learning from this project to promote place-based partnerships. And we are brokering connections between local housing and health organisations for the benefit of local people. 

We are developing several online tools: 

  • The Resident Resilience Insight tool helps organisations to measure, identify and track the resilience of individual residents.  
  • The Community Insight tool enables organisations to understand the issues local communities are facing.  
  • The Social Value Insight tool helps organisations to model, monitor and measure their social impact in local communities.  

In short, we are actively supporting and developing new services that housing associations and the sector need to deliver better on its core social purpose.  

One simple initiative we launched is our impact measures, through which we are collating statistical evidence about the support housing associations have provided to residents. As a sector we need to get better at demonstrating our collective value. We need to be more effective in our lobbying, not just when a rent settlement needs to be negotiated, but at times like these, when our residents’ lives and welfare are threatened.  

This latest Resident Voice Index report should make us, as a sector, stand up and make a difference.  

No one in our homes should ever be in a position where they are having to utter those six words again. 

About HACT

HACT is the charity of the social housing sector, whose core values; Innovation, Collaboration and Insights have driven the transformation and development of housing providers for over 60 years.  

HACT believes the provision of housing is about more than just bricks and mortar – it’s about enhancing peoples’ live and driving value in social housing by unlocking the potential for lasting, transformational change.

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