As the majority of Habinteg tenants define themselves as disabled people, our response to the COVID-19 crisis has been uniquely coloured by their needs.
Habinteg’s mission is founded on the social model of disability, which says that the barriers in our environment and society cause disability rather than a physical impairment or medical condition.
So in our day-to-day work, we focus on meeting tenants’ accessible housing needs regardless of medical labels.
However, the emergence of coronavirus has forced us to take account of tenants’ personal realities in a completely new way.
Many, whether they define themselves as disabled or not, have taken steps to protect themselves from the virus from a very early stage. From initial precautions such as declining to shake hands, to full-blown ‘shielding’ actions that the government later advised, the impact on the lives of many tenants has been profound.
The crisis has thrown into sharp relief the reality of life for many disabled people. Be that a reliance on domiciliary services for personal care at home, or the critical importance of a network to help with shopping or combat isolation.
And then there is a new fear that, should the worst come to pass, society’s assumptions about disabled people could narrow the chances of receiving potentially life-saving interventions.
One of our tenants, actress Sam Renke, wrote powerfully on this subject for the Metro newspaper this month. Her feelings are far from rare.
This is the new existential fear that many of our tenants share with us.
In this context our utmost priority is to support tenants in their efforts to protect themselves, their families and their communities, while keeping our own staff and contractors safe and continuing to deliver our landlord duties as far as possible.
So far around 10% of our households have informed us that they are self-isolating or shielding. We expect this number to rise as our frontline teams make well-being calls to all, offering signposting to useful sources of support across our 86 local authorities.
As the impact of COVID-19 on our operational dependencies became apparent, we realised we were unlikely to be able to keep up our usual service. As lockdown hit we announced a focus solely on emergency repairs for the time being.
The dramatic drop in repairs requests that followed thankfully matches demand to our contractors’ remaining capacity. We’re keeping in close contact with them as they juggle the twin restrictions of staff availability to the scarcity of materials.
Where housing staff need to visit a site, either to meet with tenants or for routine checks such as fire alarm testing, they follow a bespoke risk assessment process that we keep under review as government guidance develops – for example on use of appropriate personal protective equipment.
Regular contact with contractors about how they will manage risks to their staff and our customers alike is a new feature of life for our repairs and maintenance team.
Where work can be done, it’s critical that we ensure adequate social distancing and personal protection.
Despite thorough plans to manage risk, we are seeing a rise in the number of tenants declining access for landlord safety checks, so we’re sharing information about the safety measures in place wherever we can to help reassure tenants.
All the while we are mindful that most tenants aim to limit their personal exposure, and many are in the shielding category, which drastically reduces their social contact.
It’s no surprise to hear from our frontline teams that many tenants are struggling with the increased sense of isolation and loneliness.
Some also need practical support carrying out more of their daily activities online than they ever have before. So while we may be making fewer visits to tenants’ homes, our teams still have a vital role in helping tenants adapt to this temporary ‘normal’.
Support with booking online shopping slots or linking people up with local Covid-19 Mutual Aid networks can make all the difference.
A flexible approach to some repairs is another easy way we can help – a broken TV aerial wouldn’t normally be top of our list but its current importance to tenants’ well-being is clear.
Of course the situation is changing all the time. And we’re aware that an even bigger challenge awaits us once the lockdown finally eases off.
The level of pent-up demand is a major ‘known unknown’. The speed at which the repairs and maintenance contractors can return to normal service is another.
We may have weathered the first wave of change caused by the COVID-19 crisis, but now we must start mapping out recovery scenarios if we’re to ride the return to regular service as smoothly.
In the meantime we remain attentive and sensitive to the needs and real fears of our tenants, staff and contractors. Together we are supporting each other through this and together we will recover.
For all our latest coronavirus news and updates you can visit our COVID-19 Hub here