Government asked us to provide evidence of the impact of Covid-19 on homelessness and the private rented sector. This is our response:
1. Who we are
Lenwell provides property management services and was established by me in 1990.
From a small office in Luton, Lenwell has expanded to 6 offices in Luton, Dunstable, Bedford, Hitchin, Northampton and Milton Keynes, now managing over 3500 properties and employing 49 full time staff.
2. Key Recommendations
We think that:
Business Continuity Plans (BCP) should be made compulsory.
Partnerships between the private rented sector, housing organisations and Local Authorities should be actively encouraged, reporting to Government.
Government should support ‘good’ landlords and tenants who work together.
Reinforce the message to tenants to pay their rent, reminding there is help and advice available, if they are experiencing difficulties.
3. Summary of Recommendations
3.1.The business learning from this crisis needs to be shared within the sector and a framework of best practice for business continuity planning needs to be developed for agents and landlords.
3.2.The sector’s Business Continuity Plans – whilst it is recognised that having such a plan in place, is an essential business requirement, I think that this crisis has demonstrated the existence, quality and actual application of such plans has been extremely varied.
3.3.Business Continuity Plans need to be living documents that have been tested, regularly reviewed and not just left on the shelf.
3.4.Support is needed for tenants and landlords/agents to achieve long term tenancies, particularly for rough sleepers.
3.5.A greater level of sector engagement in the homelessness debate, rather than just being seen as part of the problem.
3.6.The eradication of the delays in processing benefit claims. A reinforcement to Tenants of their obligation to pay rent, with a reminder that help and advice is available, if they are experiencing difficulties.
3.7.Landlords and Agents should be encouraged to work proactively with tenants to ensure that they have in place effective debt management arrangements. We increased our accounts team so there were enough staff to help those tenants who likely to experience some financial difficulty in meeting rent payments and their landlords, who more often than not, were welcome to any solutions offered to ensure homes were not at risk.
3.8.Ensure risk assessments have been completed addressing the well-being of staff and that the new working arrangements are safe, in preparation for a ‘post lockdown’ return.
3.9.Under our Key Worker Scheme, some landlords have offered their properties rent free for three months to emergency service workers. These landlords should be celebrated.
4.1.Access to a decent, affordable, safe and secure home, is a fundamental human right. Ensuring the private rental sector continues to provide a quality service, that is responsive to the needs of both landlords and tenants during these difficult and challenging times, is essential.
4.2.Too often the private rental sector is viewed by local authorities as a cause of homelessness, rather than being part of the solution. We feel that there are opportunities to forge a more effective working partnership between local authorities and the private rental sector in tackling the levels of homelessness.
4.3.Whilst it is true that the loss of private rental housing is one of the significant reasons for approaches being made to local authority homelessness units, the reality of the sector is that the vast majority of landlords only look to recover their property for good reason. A stable landlord/tenant relationship works for both parties.
4.4.Looking below the headline numbers of approaches and acceptance of homelessness, the statistics show that a significant proportion of people accepted as homeless have complex needs, with a high proportion of individuals experiencing mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse and/or other underlining medical conditions.
4.5.The private rental sector would benefit from greater help, support and assistance with the management of tenants with these characteristics. We do not have the expertise to effectively assess, manage and work with these tenants on a day-to-day basis. What is required is a more open and two-way relationship and a joined-up approach with the experts within the local authorities, whether its housing officers, public health, social care or the NHS.
4.6.We have experienced a situation with a local authority that has placed a homeless client in a private sector rental property, who is evidently in need of some form of wrap around support which is not available. The tenancy then causes real problems to neighbours and the property, and when we have looked to the local authority for support, we are forced to repair the damage caused by the tenant ourselves.
4.7.This clearly does not make sense for us, as managers of the property, or for the landlord who is sustaining unrecoverable losses. The tenant is likely to be evicted sooner rather than later and the local authority will then have to issue a new homeless application and the circle continues (into a new property) without any problems being addressed.
4.8.We feel that the availability of support and expertise being provided to private sector landlords and agents to proactively work with such tenants would have the potential to sustain significant numbers of tenancies that currently fail.
4.9.The network of support provided by the former Supporting People Housing Related Support Programme varies considerably by local authorities, area to area. In reality, this is a service that most private sector landlords and agents are not aware of and therefore are not connecting with for help and support for tenants.
Benefits and Access to Advice Information and Guidance
4.10.Improved levels of communication between local authorities, agents and landlords about the progress of benefit claims would provide mutual dividends. The time delays on processing Universal Credit claims are well documented and in these times even more under pressure. Improving processing times would obviously be the preferred solution, but in the absence of that, some form of communication with agents and landlords about the progress of claims would be helpful and reassuring such as a letter or email to confirm an application has been accepted.
4.11.Equally, better access to advice, information and guidance to tenants would be beneficial. As a pilot, we have opened negotiations with a local Citizens Advice Bureau and a local authority to develop a priority referral arrangement for our tenants that need help and advice. Although still at the negotiation stage, this has the potential to provide some of the wrap around support that is needed.
4.12.The common goal we have is the sustainability of tenancies, wherever possible.
The Challenge of Rough Sleeping
4.13.The move to reduce the levels of rough sleeping during the period of COVID-19, does appear to have achieved some notable success in providing temporary accommodation for rough sleepers.
4.14.The challenge to local authorities will be to provide settled accommodation solutions beyond COVID-19. The reasons for rough sleeping are varied and complex and the obvious failure to reduce numbers is not just a reflection on historical efforts, but a demonstration that there is no quick fix or easy solution.
4.15.The need for joined up and integrated cross agency support with housing providers is even more relevant and essential here. If Government is genuine in its ambition to significantly reduce the levels of rough sleeping, a strategy which embraces this cross- agency approach will need to be developed with adequate levels of funding.
The Private Rental Sector
4.16.The implementation of Business Continuity Plans triggered by COVID-19 within this sector has been varied.
4.17.Our approach was to ensure that the core services to landlords and tenants were maintained and that every action taken was underpinned by the company values. We had in place our Business Continuity Plan which had only recently been subject to a desk top review by the Board of Directors. Using that plan, an operationally risk-based review of services and business processes was undertaken, and implemented.
4.18.The fact that some agents have effectively shut up shop for what is an essential service without any regards to their tenants and landlords, is damming and reflects poorly on the sector.
4.19.Whilst all our offices were closed, a comprehensive set of working from home arrangements with appropriate secure IT infrastructure were put in place so that a continuity of services was maintained as soon as the lockdown was announced.
4.20.To ensure a smooth transition, some staff were assigned to new roles and responsibilities, ensuring that:
Essential repairs requests are being recorded and works are being completed.
Rent collection and enhanced debt recovery arrangements have been put in place. Tenants with financial issues are being supported and to date rent arrear levels have not increased.
Video viewing has been successfully introduced and new lettings have been, and are continually being, achieved.
• The cornerstone to the implementation of our plan has been communication, with staff still at work, those furloughed and equally with landlords and tenants. The essence of the Lenwell message being that we are still open for business, and if you need to contact us, we are here.
• In addition, with the support of some of our landlords, we have been able to introduce and operate a scheme to provide free accommodation to emergency service key workers.
4.21.Looking to the future, we have prepared a reflective review of the impact of COVID -19 on the business. This document records the steps we have taken so far and will act as a record for reference during any future emergency planning.
4.22.As we look forward to the relaxation of the lockdown restrictions, we are now planning for offices to reopen and working practices to return to what will be the ‘new normal’. A key element of preparing for the return, is ensuring that the health risks to and well-being of our staff are fully assessed and the new working arrangements are within a safe working environment.
4.23.In terms of the wider sector response, there has been a significant amount of coverage in the trade and national press.
Reported examples of poor practice have included:
Letting agents that furloughed their entire staff with the exception of company directors, effectively closing their business operations down, offering no customer service to tenants or landlords and failing to deliver their statutory responsibilities.
A number of significant companies in the sector, seem to have used COVID -19 as an opportunity to introduce whole scale redundancies, and sackings with immediate effect and no obvious transition plan to ensure the core services remained operational.
There has been extensive anxiety about the loss of rental income, but little evidence of agents taking pro-active steps to manage the situation.
Some landlords attempting to take advantage of the mortgage holiday, but still demanding the rent.
Some landlords and agents demanding that tenants give access for viewings.
5. Final Summary
Businesses that supply key services to the community must take their responsibilities seriously and not put profit before the fundamental services they provide.
A robust Business Continuity Plan will help all businesses to continue to operate and provide essential services, Government should actively encourage every business to have a plan in place.
Local authorities have an opportunity to engage with the private rental sector in new ways as we return to normal. Most housing providers really want to improve housing standards and provide sustainable tenancies, I hope local authorities will make necessary changes to engage with these providers as we come out of lockdown.
Good landlords should be recognised and in particular those that provided free accommodation to Emergency Service Key Workers.
It is important that tenants hear the message from Government that rents should still be paid alongside details of the help available to tenants who are suffering financial hardship.
Our full Covid-19 response live document can be read here, please note this is a live document and is constantly being updated.