While Universal Credit claims in 2020 had already increased by 5% since the previous year before COVID-19, the current crisis saw almost 500,000 people make new claims over a nine day period in March 2020. Universal Credit is a financial shock for social housing tenants – leading not only to rent arrears, rapidly escalating debts, and risk of eviction, but also real struggles with mental health.
We partnered with One Manchester – a major Housing Association in Manchester – to tackle Universal Credit as a financial shock for their tenants.
Mapping the landscape of provision in Greater Manchester quickly highlighted that there is a gap in service provision to support tenants during the “five week wait” which, we know, is a particularly vulnerable time for tenants, leaving them at risk of rapidly falling into debt while waiting for the first
Universal Credit payment. Aside from general money advice, the majority of provision is crisis or recovery support targeted at specific groups, like those overcoming addiction, illness, or homelessness. For “everyone else”, we know there are tidbits of support available for tenants from different service providers – like rent adjustments, utilities payment breaks, food banks, community shops, wellbeing support, job clubs and more. But tenants don’t always know this support is available.
Working with One Manchester, we wanted to test a way to support tenants through the five week wait using existing service provision. Based on streams of insight from our user research, and through a series of co-design and prioritisation activities, together we came up with an idea – the Universal Credit Survival Pack.
We took a hypothesis-driven testing approach. The hypothesis was that “we believe a UC Survival Pack will enable tenants to take proactive control to manage changes when they move on to UC, minimising new debt build up, and building awareness of the support available to them, including we as One Manchester can offer them.”
What we did
1. Prototyped a UC Survival Pack
We rapidly prototyped a UC Survival Pack. It included:
- An upfront promise from us to hold or reduce rent payments until the first UC payment comes in.
- A £10 supermarket voucher for their nearest Tesco or Asda to help with buying essentials
- A locally tailored list of support services like food banks, libraries, job support, counselling, as well as benefits and debt advice from One Manchester’s dedication specialist team of advisors – One Money.
- A checklist of payment breaks offered by utilities providers.
2. Conducted live testing for five weeks
Over a 5 week test period across Feb-March 2020, we posted the UC Survival pack to 57 tenants who had made new Universal Credit claims, along with a text to let them know the pack was on the way, and a second reminder test in some cases.
Everything was tracked around three assumptions.
- Tenants will open their UC Survival Pack. We tracked usage of the Tesco and Asda vouchers as a proxy for open rates.
- Tenants will engage with One Manchester. We tracked the number of calls to the phone number on the pack, as well as the number of tenants who opted for a rent adjustment or rent break.
- Tenants will opt for longer-term financial support. We tracked the number of tenants who opted for a benefits check with One Money, and if they opted for ongoing support from One Manchester or a signposted partner service.
What we found
The results in numbers
- Over the period of the test, 24 out of the 57 tenants (42%) opened their UC Survival Pack (based on the proxy of voucher usage).
- The number of tenants who engaged with One Manchester increased to 79% (from 37% – more than double).
- 37 rent adjustments were agreed, which is 65% of all tenants who were sent a pack. The number of rent adjustments agreed before the pack was sent was 14, which is 25%. (Caveat: 28% of tenants had contact with the Income Team after receiving the pack. It’s possible that these tenants may have been more likely to engage due to receiving the UC Survival Pack, but it is also possible that a proportion of them had simply missed the first call from the Income Team and happened to answer the second call. So, we cannot fully attribute the increase in engagements and rent adjustment to the pack, but can confidently say that the pack has resulted in more engagements than normal.)
- 8 out of the 57 tenants (13%) called the One Manchester’s Universal Credit Advice Line (the phone number on the pack). Most tenants who phoned up had good rent accounts, and indeed, only 3 out of the 8 took up the offer for long-term support from One Money.
The takeaway insights
- While a 42% open rate may be a high indicator of engagement, even with the promise of free money, more than half of UC Survival Packs were left unopened. This is telling us that a pack sent to tenants homes may not work for everyone. This could be due to letter anxiety, literacy issues, or even the fear of being “told-off by your landlord”. Next, we’re keen to test other channels of distribution, such as email, text and chat bot.
- Almost two thirds of tenants who received the pack opted for an adjustment to their rent payments – a proactive step to minimising debt build up during the five week wait – but reports from One Manchester’s rents team show that all of these tenants had “ok” rent accounts. This is telling us that tenants with high arrears or erratic rent payment behaviours did not engage despite the promise of support. Next, we’re keen to test sending packs in-partnership with a trusted local organisation, or to adjust the messaging to emphasise that One Manchester’s objective is to support them to sustain their tenancy – keeping them secure in their home.
- Finally, verbal reports from the One Manchester team highlighted that the types of tenants who engaged prompted by the UC Survival Pack were more representative of their tenant base compared to the people they normally speak to who are in financial crisis. “An array of people have come through – a carer, someone self-employed, someone working, a person gone onto UC because her child has left college. [These are types of] people we have tried to target before.” This is telling us that testing out proactive communications points can boost engagement from and interaction with different tenant types in a variety of financial situations.
There’s an urgent and immediate need now for housing associations to take steps in creating meaningful relationships with tenants. We want to continue to test the UC Survival Pack with housing associations to boost engagement and trust from tenants and ease the financial shock of Universal Credit. We’re specifically interested in testing differences in language, tone and communications channels to increase reach – this could mean implementing very lightweight ways to share critical information over text, email and your website.