Q1: What plans/contingencies do housing associations have for people who use hostels or live in supported accommodation who become ill with Coronavirus and have to self-isolate?
Given the pace of developments, below is a snapshot of the kind of protocols that are in place.
Associations are following government guidance including social distancing and are restricting non-essential face-to-face contact between staff and supported tenants – e.g. scheme coordinators are switching to phone contact with tenants where possible. Associations are putting in place protocols to allow staff to redeploy urgently to supported accommodation should staff shortages arise.
Family contact details for residents have been updated. Those with no family or next of kin will still be supported and housing associations will liaise directly with social services. Also, some are coordinating with local charities, food banks and advice agencies to provide support for those in urgent need. Supported schemes that are self-contained are suitable for residents to self-isolate. Activities in accommodation-based schemes are being cancelled to reduce the risk of transmission.
Guidance has been implemented to manage infection control and measures are in place to isolate within each of the properties, and there is liaison with NIHE, PHA and the Health Trusts on implementing best practice.
For homeless hostels that are self-contained, self-isolation will work within that setup, as it would any other accommodation. Households will be advised to contact 111 and follow medical advice. At these hostels, staff cover is maintained in reception areas and through a remote floating support team.
Q2: Are housing associations taking any measure to introduce a rent suspension for people affected by COVID-19?
Housing associations have given a commitment to the Communities Minister to treat all rent issues with sensitivity and they will support tenants through this difficult period. Housing associations are not planning on introducing a rent suspension.
It is worth noting that around 70% of housing association tenants are already in receipt of support for their housing costs. Where tenants require assistance, advice or additional support (particularly if they cannot pay rent owed because of the loss of income), then associations will step in and assist them. Housing association welfare advisors and housing officers are already assisting tenants in the Housing Benefit /Universal Credit claim process and will work with them on developing a repayment plan that they can afford, if the need arises. Associations are reviewing the situation regularly and will revise their approach accordingly. Where possible, associations are putting additional resources into their welfare/money advice teams to support those who may be struggling due to COVID-19, especially tenants who have been laid off temporarily. Our aim is to meet the unprecedented demand for advice and help as many tenants as we can.
As charities and social purpose organisations, housing associations are reasonable, compassionate landlords. Associations will look at each case on its merits and make every effort to avoid evicting tenants.
Q3: How will your tenants access information from housing associations in the event that the front-facing services may be closed to the public?
The housing associations that have closed their office to the public have staff still working either at home or in with skeleton office staff. It is not the intention to provide less services, but the services may be provided differently. Additional technology, such as laptops and mobile phones, are being used where neeeded to to maintain a responsive service during this period.
Information is being provided to tenants through various means – by phone, email and regular updates on websites and social media including Facebook, Twitter and FaceTime.
Many housing associations have sent letters to tenants detailing revised service provision and key contact numbers.
Housing association with tenants who are vulnerable or in isolation aim to have staff make social telephone calls to help minimise the risk of loneliness and check all is okay. For elderly residents in sheltered schemes, the aim is to maintain, as far as is possible, a presence at each scheme. In one association, in the event of extreme staffing difficulties, a resident has been identified in most schemes who will be able to receive a message and relay it to other residents as required.