After joining Town & Country Housing as a Support Worker, Louise later moved into the role of Income Manager. We spoke to her about how can she can help tenants get back on track when it comes to paying any rent arrears and get advice on benefit claims.
“Historically, I did some work on the Money Support team doing some similar work, but I have been managing the patch I do now (in central Tunbridge Wells) as an Income Manager since 2015,” explains Louise.
“Before I moved to Town & Country my life was very different,” she adds. “I lived somewhere else and worked for DWP (Department of Work and Pensions), though when I joined it was ‘DHSSS’ – that’s how old I am! I worked there until I had children.”
Louise would later move on to a more people-facing role (i.e. supporting people with head injuries or the elderly with managing their money). “One day, an agency I went to said, ‘There’s a company in Tunbridge Wells recruiting for Support Workers – and the rest is history.”
The role of the Income Team
“I’m the newest addition of the group. Our team includes the Money Support trio who have got their own patches and several Income Managers (like me) here and in East Kent, as well as two people to handle former tenant and sheltered housing.”
As a team, Lou and her colleagues work to oversee the collection of rent for properties in a dedicated area, with Money Support Officers specifically helping residents with their budgeting and paying debts. If people’s rent is not coming in, Louise will work with a tenant to work out a suitable payment plan to pay back arrears.
Each team member differs in their approach to working with tenants, but Louise is keen to meet at the office at Monson House or at a resident’s home (if they are comfortable with this), to figure things out. “Personally, I’d like to sit down and talk face-to-face, rather than talk on the phone, if possible.”
“I don’t think I can say certain things in the job are specifically part of my role or a Money Support Officer – they are interrelated, but Money Support understand the action we have to take if things build up.”
Income Managers can refer residents to Money Support Officers if they are in need of a bit of guidance on money, but also suggest using Citizens Advice and local dedicated support, like the West Kent Debt Advice or similar, depending on a tenant’s need or preference. With 18 locations around Kent (including Tunbridge Wells, Maidstone, Canterbury, Dover & more), Citizens Advice can offer a range of advice on sorting out debts and other money-related issues (e.g. getting the best gas & electricity deal).
Getting used to Universal Credit
It’s varied work – as well as working with tenants to decide how to best deal with arrears, it’s important for Louise to keep up with the rollout and updates to Universal Credit (UC) and other benefits, as well as sometimes being in court due to arrears not being repaid.
What’s the biggest misconception about her job? “That I don’t want to actually help – I’m just interested in money and want people out of their homes if there’s payment issues.”
“I think my biggest challenge is getting people to talk to me sometimes.” Louise fully recognises precious homes are, and just starting the conversation on how to tackle issues with outstanding rent payments; “Please speak to us about what’s going on – I’ve got lots of experience doing this and I do want to help as best as I can, and I don’t want to sit here and say no to everyone.”With the introduction of UC and full/live service, a lot of people will now be responsible for paying their own rent and Louise stresses that letting her know when it’s come in is vital to keep on top of things. “Sometimes doing it all yourself can be hard and even though we may make an arrangement for paying things back it’s still not easy. People will ask if their rent can come straight out of their UC because they can’t manage it, and that’s okay. Sometimes we will have to ask that this happens as things are stacking up (or because of certain circumstances).”
Overall, communication is key, whether your benefits have changed, you have cancelled your rent direct debit or you have been contacted about rent arrears: “Unfortunately, I do need people to keep me informed of changes to housing benefit (and UC) because we don’t get that information from the council.”
Not responding to a NOSP (Notice of Seeking Possession) in the 28 days afterwards or not going to a court hearing can lead to surplus charges on top of arrears, and, unfortunately, in some cases eviction.
Dealing with overpayments (or ‘clawback’)
Sometimes it can be difficult to deal with an overpayment of housing benefit which can occasionally happen by error via DWP, who will then take money back to make up the difference each week (known as ‘clawback’). The sum will depend on the amount overpaid to a tenant and the reason for overpayment.
“I know tenants can find this quite tough sometimes, and if they are I suggest they go back to the council and state real hardship and ask for the payments off and sometimes they’ll be able to reduce them (although they will have to pay it back for a longer period).”
Overall, although doing a challenging role, Louise says working together with a tenant to resolve any payment issues, get things on track and see them get the support they may need to do this is the most rewarding part of her job. “The highlight of my job is seeing someone get the benefit they may need to get by,” says Louise. “It’s also nice every now and then to have someone thank you after following your advice, as you really feel like you’ve helped,” she concludes.