Feature: Not just a desk job

John McClarey with Weslo staff
John McClarey with Weslo staff

John McClarey, business development officer at CIH Scotland, charts his day shadowing staff at Weslo Housing Management.

The average office mundane morning routine of checking into Outlook doesn’t last long on housing’s front line. Once the day is planned out and visits have been scheduled with tenants, prospective customers, complainants and victims amongst a multitude of others, it’s out on the road to prove that the career is definitely not just a desk job.

Chartered Institute of Housing Scotland staff shadowed Weslo Housing Management’s housing officers, Pamela Menzies, Julie Cairns, Jessie McCue and Linda Gibson to experience life on the front line which provided a fascinating insight into the issues, challenges and heart warming situations housing staff are faced with. We’ve documented one particular day on the front line.

Like any industry, safety is paramount and as we donned the high viz vests to walk through the maintenance yard to the pool car, I listened to Pam map out her day and what lay ahead for us. First off it was a visit to a prospective tenant where we met a man who had been staying at his son’s residence and had been ‘couch surfing’ for the past 6 months. He had been made homeless after the breakdown of his relationship.

With a house already earmarked, this was a procedural visit to complete the formalities but the main aim was a rapport building exercise. It was seen as an opportunity to connect to the customer and to be open and honest with each other so that neither party is met with any major surprises further down the line. Even when conversation shifted towards more awkward subjects like criminal history and previous references, these were approached in a manner that put everyone at ease as opposed to the customer adopting a more defensive stance.

Once the i’s were dotted and t’s were crossed and of course subject to references, it is likely the customer will come off the housing shortlist and into occupancy. I thought back to something I had heard before: that getting off on a good footing at the start is the best way to ensure a smooth tenancy, which was in evidence here.

Next up we had a couple of ‘no access’ calls. One tenant was heavily in arrears and in the middle of court proceedings, the other a prospective tenant. The first was a no show, which was understandable as they may wish to avoid the awkward conversation but with Pam’s tenacity and persistence I doubt he’ll stay hidden long. The other was a mystery. Why arrange a visit to conduct a needs assessment for a potential house and then not show up? It works both ways at the start of a tenancy.

The most enjoyable visits of the day were the ‘settling in’ visits. Happy tenants relayed their joy of moving into a new home and conveyed their appreciation and thanks to their housing officer for all their help. Again this was another opportunity for relationship building and gave the tenant the sense that they had a landlord who was willing to sort out the minor problems that often come with moving into a new property. They wanted to tailor their communication channels to suit the customer whether it be e-mail, text or a letter, and most of all cared about their feelings, asking not only about their home status but taking a genuine interest in their lives.

What became apparent throughout the day was the scope and variety of the work of a housing officer. With job roles beginning to blur, the housing officer’s role was considerably more than the rent collector they are often perceived as. Advising tenants with ill health, relationship counselling, dealing with anti-social neighbours, drug related problems, house adaptations carried out by occupational therapists with the input of the housing officer, money management advice and various other issues tackled on a daily basis.

We also had a number of calls that centred on the issues of rent arrears. Pam explained that getting in early and using pro active measures proved much more effective in her experience. A particular client had a history of falling behind in rent so it was of paramount importance that preventative action was taken as opposed to reacting as they fall way behind in their rental payments to then have to fight their way back to credit.

Others simply didn’t have the money to pay and pleaded for time, such as an unemployed young man with a dog, whose personal circumstances had affected his ability to sustain his rental payments. This is where judgement and discretion are necessary for the role. The housing officer has to decide the best way to approach the situation and on this occasion the best plan of action was judged to be to arrange an appointment for the young man with the local welfare rights officer as well as advise that he seek medical help to build his confidence back up. Having listened to the details of his situation and his proposal to change the tenancy to a joint tenancy with his partner, who he assured would be making the next contribution to the rental payment, Pam was happy to re-schedule another visit and assess the situation when hopefully his circumstances have improved.

One of our brief visits was to investigate a complaint that had been made by a resident in the local area who wasn’t a Weslo tenant. Grass cuttings had been left strewn across the path after some routine maintenance work and the resident was unhappy with the results. As Weslo managed the maintenance contract in the area they explained that they would endeavour to sort the problem out and ensured the situation would be rectified going forward. This served as another indication on the scope of work carried out by the profession and highlighted the diversity of the role by again acting as intermediary.

With our second settling in visit, Pam was again given a warm welcome by a couple who were very pleased to their new home which better suited their needs. Having been long term tenants, even the dog seemed to recognise Pam. Again they outlined some minor issues they would like resolved, another few issues for Weslo’s in house maintenance team to handle, yet more for Pam to document on her return to the desk. The conversation made its way to health issues and again with the background knowledge of the service user the housing officer was given another task: to be on site when the occupational therapists visits to suggest some house adaptations that will make the tenant’s life easier.

During our final visit I saw first hand a practice Weslo have become renowned for, a transfer visit in which Weslo first allocate available houses to current tenants in need of a new property. With three children sleeping in one bedroom, the family were in need of extra space. The father once again had a great relationship with his housing officer and was more than willing to listen to the demands and carry out the repairs necessary to hand the property back in an acceptable condition. With several issues highlighted and a final exit visit scheduled, we made our way back to the office.

In each of the properties we visited lay a copy of Weslo’s monthly newsletter and highlighted that small methods of tenant engagement can make big gains in the relationships. Maximising the potential of these relationships has a big part to play in minimising arrears.

Throughout the day the need for health care, social care, housing and other agencies to work together to deliver an effective service for the community was abundantly clear. Integration in the third sector could start by harmonising the language used, service user, tenant, customer, patient, resident, occupant etc they are all one in the same with different labels. Standardising the title of the service users would lead to less confusion and a more holistic approach through a combined knowledge sharing portal would be massively beneficial for improving the overall welfare of our society.

Each member of the CIH Scotland team gained a vital insight into life on the front line from their day with Weslo’s housing officers and with no two days the same we all experienced different elements of one of the countries unheralded professions.




Share icon
Share this article: