Nikki Bond, Research Assistant, Money and Mental Health

Where the heart is

Social housing, rent arrears and mental health

Home is where the heart is, a place of safety, security and a refuge from the world. For people experiencing mental health problems this can be all the more important, as a stable home can be crucial to recovery. Our latest research looks at the challenges of maintaining housing payments, and how for people experiencing mental health problems this can be particularly difficult – 34% of people struggling with housing payments are experiencing a mental health problem, compared to 22% of the wider population.

Income shocks and financial capability

Mental health problems are often associated with income shocks: a sudden change in income due to changes in health, employment, benefits or family circumstance. Managing a drastic change in income is difficult for anyone. When well, a person may be able to ‘weather the storm’; agree reduced repayments, seek alternative employment or submit benefit applications to ensure the rent is paid.

For those overwhelmed by mental health problems, and experiencing associated cognitive and behavioural changes, such as difficulties with memory, attention, clarity of thought or impulsivity, being able to problem solve in this way can be a near impossibility.

People who have experienced mental health problems and difficulties paying for housing told us they often felt powerless to resolve their situation alone, too unwell to return to or seek work, and lacking the motivation or capability to navigate the benefit system. All too often rent goes unpaid, placing a person’s home at risk and in turn provoking anxiety and fear.

Struggling to access support

Letters and calls arrive with repeated messages that ‘your home is at risk if you do not keep up with repayments’, filled with fear, people disengage before seeing the offers of support at the bottom of letters. Lacking the capability or self-efficacy to proactively seek out support from advice agencies, tenants can find themselves careering towards court proceedings and potential homelessness at a frightening speed.

Social landlords invest heavily in tenancy sustainment services to support residents, who are also protected by legislation which stipulates that, where people are waiting on certain benefit applications, court proceedings cannot proceed. Our research suggests, however, that because initial offers of support don’t always reach tenants experiencing mental health problems, this doesn’t go far enough.

Stopping the clock on court proceedings

The Government is working to introduce ‘Breathing Space’, a statutory measure to support people overwhelmed by debt. The scheme aims to encourage people to seek timely debt advice by offering to freeze interest, charges and enforcement action for up to six weeks while people work with creditors and advice providers to find a sustainable solution.

We believe this scheme could help by allowing social landlords to make a clear offer of immediate respite to tenants who reach out to them for help. As such, we think it’s critical that the Breathing Space scheme includes social housing arrears. While the six week pause offered by Breathing Space won’t always be enough to allow a tenant to resolve their situation, it should be long enough for them to take initial steps, and make benefits applications where necessary, meaning they’re then entitled to protection under existing legislation.

Helping tenants hear messages of support

We hope the introduction of Breathing Space will offer another opportunity for social landlords to assist tenants experiencing rent arrears, and struggling to engage with support. But its success will depend on how social housing providers communicate the offer to their tenants. Through our research, we met many dedicated housing professionals who knew only too well the challenges of supporting tenants experiencing mental health problems and heard ample examples of staff going above and beyond when supporting people to sustain tenancies. To help embed those examples through the sector, we’re publishing a Best Practice Checklist for social housing providers, proposing basic changes in processes to improve support to tenants experiencing mental health problems and rent arrears.

Preventing the problems

We think offering Breathing Space when social housing tenants are experiencing financial difficulties is an important part of the solution. But, in an ideal world, we want to see fewer people with mental health problems falling into arrears in the first place. Our report also makes recommendations to government about how the benefits system could be improved to ensure people experiencing mental health problems aren’t disadvantaged when it comes to claiming benefits entitlements.