Interview: The Manchester Housing Officer

The following interview with a housing officer from Manchester by Let’s Get Rooted reveals the impact of the lockdown on both workers and working class tenants.

I’ve worked as a housing officer for a housing association (in the greater Manchester area) for nine years. The housing association is the biggest employer in the town. My job is to support people maintain their tenancies.

When covid came on the news a lot of people at work started talking about it and people expected management to say something about it but they didn’t for a week or so. During that time people were a bit cautious about going out of the office to do home visits but no-one really knew what they should be doing. Nothing really happened till the government lockdown on the 18-19th March when they asked us to start working from home but still didn’t say anything about home visits which we were still doing. No real decisions were made about these kind of things. People just made their own decisions. We were not officially designated front line workers but management expected us to behave as if we were when it suited them..

No-one had any PPE and this was something people were complaining about but we only got PPE a few weeks ago.

Most of our work is face to face interactions so after the lockdown we had to find ways of doing things without this. This made everything twice as hard. Often you needed tenants to sign things and this couldn’t happen. We had to find ways round either by doing things online or over the phone. Mostly these new ways were just worked out by people themselves. When management did tell us to do things it was usually after we had already worked that out. My job is so varied that they couldn’t work out rules to cover everything.

We were mostly supporting very vulnerable people so covid created much more work, leave aside the fact that the new ways we were working made things harder. So we were constantly being contacted by people reporting other people for breaching covid guidelines and also we had many people who couldn’t go out so they had no access to food and other things they needed. Our work load went up.

We soon realised that we were just about the only people working for the association who were still doing face to face meetings. The management would send out emails telling us how to conduct a safe home visit but they have no idea of the reality. You ring people and tell them how you are going to conduct the visit but the minute you’re there it all breaks down – people with mental health difficulties or language problems who don’t understand what’s required. But management just say ‘well only do it if you feel comfortable with it’. In other words its all down to you but the fact is you have to do these visits and if you don’t they say why haven’t you done this or this. Then I’ve got a manager who has just come from the logistics/delivery business and he says ‘Why did this visit take an hour and a half when this one only took an hour?’ Well, because this person doesn’t speak English and needed a translator! The manager just doesn’t get people are not things. We have cases of hoarders, people with mental health issues who hoard stuff and this manager says we should be going and looking through their windows! He doesn’t understand that these are people with rights to privacy! I’m not going peering through people’s windows. And now they want us to do a risk assessment for every visit. Not only is this even more work but it’s completely pointless because you cannot predict how people will behave and I might do a visit to one flat but everyone on the estate knows me and straight away other people are coming up to tell me this or that.

When the lockdown started most housing associations stopped doing new lettings in line with government advice that people shouldn’t be moving but our association carried on letting properties and this led to many problems. For example we’d be ringing people who might have been waiting for ages for housing but then because they were shielding they couldn’t take up the offer so then they’d loose their place on the list. We felt people were being force to move when they shouldn’t have been. Also we were putting people, often vulnerable people, into empty properties when there were no services available, can’t do decorating, cant get furniture or removals. And of course this all meant more work for us and it meant you had to do more home visits. For example we will usually do a viewing with a potential tenant, now we were told just send them photos but then as soon as they moved in they were calling us with lists of faults that we had to go and inspect. The association was just concerned with getting the rent in.

During the lockdown no-one could be evicted but now we’ve got lots of people getting into huge rent arrears. People on universal credit get the money sent to them but they’re spending more because the kids are at home and you have to feed them seven days a week so the rent doesn’t get paid or they just can’t budget and think that because they cant be evicted they wont pay the rent but as soon as the government says evictions can take place there will be lots of evictions. People owe thousands of pounds in some cases. There will also be evictions because of anti-social behaviour that haven’t taken place up till now.

We were being contacted by people with all these problems and we had to direct them to other agencies who could maybe help but every case was different. It might be a person had no food or a person was housebound and so the solutions were different for every person.

There were various organisations helping with food but mostly these predated Covid. I’m not really aware of any kind of new tenants self organisation being formed.

We’re the third most deprived area in the country. Anti-social behaviour increased, there was an increase in people with mental health problems and existing mental health conditions worsened and of course other agencies stopped working normally so mental health teams were no longer doing face to face visits and people were just ringing us for help or just to have someone to speak too. All the children were stuck at home and that led to lots of people ringing us complaining about anti-social behaviour, about other people’ kids playing out, not distancing. Other people were having to go to work and leave kids or trying to work at home with kids in the flat.

Not only has my work load increased a lot but working from home was very bad. My work normally is very stressful and I now realise how having a work environment defused that a bit but working at home is awful. At first they had me working on a little tablet and working for seven hours a day on a little screen, which I had to do for months, was very difficult. Also working from home puts me in the same position as everyone else, stuck indoors except I’m having to spend the whole day listening to other people complaining about it and then not being able to just finish work and switch off. It took me several years in the job to find out how to leave work at work and stop stressing about it when I got home. Now my work is at home, just going from the dining table and the tablet to the sofa, no going out, not separation. Going to bed, getting up, logging on to a tablet, doing seven or eight hours work and then no break from it. On top of all this stress you’ve got managers also at home with nothing to do but monitor us more than usual and its so hard to motivate yourself to do eight hours work stuck at home all day.

It wasn’t just me that felt like this. We had zoom staff meetings so I know what other people were saying. Management would reply to complaints by saying ‘well, we’re all in the same boat.’ We’ve had a lot of people asked to go back to working in the office because of their mental health, especially those people who have kids at home. People were asking how can I be on the phone all day with my kids running around and management said, ‘well you can work in the evening, we don’t mind if you log on at 8pm.’ but people said ‘we don’t have energy to work at 8pm’. Like me, my partner is working from home upstairs, I’m downstairs so if my daughters are here they’ve got to be quiet all day and you’re turning the children’s home into an office. Management would send out emails giving us advice about our mental health or Q and A sessions but we don’t have time to read them or go to such stuff so that’s just a waste of time. If I see an email saying ‘Corona Virus briefing’ I know that if I go to an hour long meeting then I’ve got an hours work to catch up on afterwards. Or I might get an email from the chief executive saying how hard its been for him stuck in his mansion. I just don’t need it!

Management say its business as usual but we say it isn’t.

I’m not aware of the union doing anything about these deteriorating conditions. We’re all in the union but you only ever see it when someone wants to get elected or if you’re on a disciplinary and you can take the union rep in.

On top of everything that’s been making the job worse during covid I was really overworked before the lockdown because of a lack of staff. There was a high turnover of staff because of the stress or people off on long term sickness and I was being asked to cover several people work loads, five people’s work at one point.

Even though people are asking to go back to working in the office they are saying no. We do have to go in now and then to use photocopiers, get legal documents, things like that, but they are monitoring people going in, only letting a small number in and even telling people they shouldn’t be coming in. Some people probably would like to work from home when it suits them but what you have now is not what they choose, only what’s forced on them.

There isn’t any plan for the offices to reopen and they’re saying that people doing my job will be the last people to go back in because we can work from home. So more people will go off sick but I think the management know that and have kind of factored it into their plans. Rather than hire more people they’ll just cope with people off sick and rely on the others to get the work done.

I say to all the others the reason the management get away with it is because we don’t do anything collectively, there’s no solidarity. People only care when they themselves are in the shit. So the managers are able to deal with everyone through individual conversations, persuading people that they should just carry on working. That’s the environment we’re working in nowadays. People only deal with it by going and getting another job or getting their doctor to sign them off with stress. I keep saying to people we’ve all got the same problem what have you got to lose by speaking up but people just aren’t interested.

I’m not really aware of people in the town taking any actions over work conditions.

I didn’t go on the Black Lives Matter marches, I would have done if it wasn’t for the covid situation. I think the people were right to do it at the time but not so much now. At the time I thought it was good and would bring some light on what the cause was but with hindsight it has made things worse. Amongst people I speak to it’s been misunderstood and caused more tension than there was befor. For example I had a conversation with a woman I work with and she felt completely under attack. So it’s made things worse and of course the sound bites that people hear are not really what the people who are demonstrating are trying to raise. A woman came into work and said ‘why can’t we have the monkey on cocoa pops?’ I said no-one cares about the monkey on cocoa-pops, but if that’s the sound bites that people are getting then it’s not really worked, has it? And of course it all happened when people were stuck at home and the stuff people were putting on social media just pushed people further apart. The marches were totally justified but most people I speak to just don’t get the point and I can’t be bothered any more trying to explain the real issues. They think it’s just about George Floyd and don’t understand why people in the UK are going on about that so really the message people are trying to get across just hasn’t got across.

So now our area is back on the covid lockdown as cases are rising. We’ve got a lot of multi-generational households, a lot of poverty so people rely on their local community to survive, a lot of unemployment, a high level of drink and drug addiction where people congregate regularly, and all this is causing the spread. So we’re now told we can’t visit relatives etc. but here we are doing more home visits than ever, visiting some of the most vulnerable people, going from house to house. If anyone is going to spread it it’s us. Lots of the tenants understand and say they don’t want us coming in but our management don’t get it.


See more from the LGR interview series here.