Jennifer Harris: Innovating to improve access to advice for renters
Jennifer Harris, senior research associate at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE), looks at how new UK-wide research highlights examples of how services are adapting to improve access to advice and information for people living in the private rented sector. This is part of a wider programme of work funded by TDS Charitable Foundation and Safe Deposits Scotland Charitable Trust.
Advice plays an important role in helping tenants and landlords access their rights and resolve tenancy-related problems. The demand for advice has risen over the past ten years and is likely to continue to increase as the further impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are felt. The UK however faces a serious access to advice problem. The new challenges presented by the pandemic have arrived against a background of a decade of austerity measures that have created significant gaps in provision. As a result, tenants often face difficult and convoluted advice journeys.
Our research is based on case studies and interviews with advice providers and their clients and builds on insights from existing legal needs research. Our report illustrates themes that are key to improving access to advice for renters:
Maximising the use of technology
Looking at examples of remote advice provision in other countries – such as Rechtwijzer in the Netherlands and MyLawBC in the US – it becomes clear just how far the UK has to go in developing its digital offer. A key area for future innovation is the development of a diagnostic system that performs triage. This could include webpages with dynamic content which adapt to users, or an advice chatbot similar to – but advancing beyond – that developed by one of our case studies. The case study operated the chatbot as part of a multi-step advisory process, with users being passed on to the next channel if their problem cannot be resolved at the current step. Automating certain processes and incorporating greater self-service for those capable of using these services can potentially release scarce resources for those who need them most. This type of self-help digital product will however only be appropriate for certain users. It needs to be tailored accordingly.
Targeted services for severely disadvantaged households
Episodic or short-term advice is common across the UK. However, for households in the private rented sector that face severe or multiple disadvantages and are at risk of tenancy non-sustainment, short-term advice is insufficient and is unlikely to be effective. Our report includes an example of an intensive support model that works with families at risk of destitution who are renting privately. The team acts like navigators, supporting families to access and engage with mainstream services via a relationship-based and flexible approach. Because the service is successful in achieving housing sustainment among families at high risk of homelessness there is real potential for cost offsets. This model is not appropriate for providing advice to tenants more broadly. This more intensive support must be provided as part of a comprehensive advice and support eco-system which delivers a full range of services to meet the needs of different households.
Greater collaboration and service integration
For households facing wider clusters of problems, legal advice delivered in isolation is unlikely to resolve issues. An adequate response to meeting legal needs in the private rented sector requires a mix of legal and non-legal services. Our report includes an example of how new funding and partnership arrangements in Wales are allowing service delivery to respond more effectively to differences in geography, problem type, problem urgency and client capability. The adoption of a web-based referral system facilitates multi-tier collaborations and minimises the chances people will fall through gaps between different services. The case studies suggest that where services still exist, the advice and informational ecosystem for people living and working in the sector has become increasingly complex. Traditional advice organisations work in tandem with a range of other services; new organisations and unique partnerships between the voluntary and public sector have emerged to fill gaps in service provision.
Our report includes recommendations for UK and devolved governments to improve the advice and informational ecosystem available to tenants in the private rented sector. These include:
- Exploring how technology can be used to present housing information in more user-friendly formats.
- Making resource allocations for the provision of longer-term advice and support for the most disadvantaged households.
- Considering how to ensure the necessary collaborations can occur, given that many advice organisations will not have the resources or infrastructure to build the needed connections with different organisations.
- Examining how the information, expertise and regulatory capacity of the wider voluntary sector can be enhanced to support access to advice.
- Funding further research to explore issues face by those who are unable to access online advice services. This is particularly important in light of certain people possibly being excluded under COVID-19.