Report on financial inclusion among social housing tenants identifies challenges to enhancing financial well-being

Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohoe TD, has launched a new report by Clúid Housing and the Housing Finance Agency (HFA) on Financial Inclusion Among Social Housing Tenants. The research was compiled by University College Cork’s Centre for Co-operative Studies and Financial Services Innovation Centre as part of Clúid’s annual Adrian Norridge Research Bursary. 

The report focuses on improving the financial capability of social housing tenants and other low-income households. This new research offers an analysis of how social housing residents access and use financial services and examines the impact this has on financial capability and resilience.

The key findings from the report launch show that over one third (37%) of residents show signs of weak financial inclusion or are in fact excluded. Women are more likely to be excluded than men. One in 8 (or 12%) of residents, stated that they did not have a bank, credit union or post office account. Levels of insurance cover were extremely low with 90% living without home contents insurance and 84% without life assurance. 

Emergency Borrowing

Along with these mixed levels of financial inclusion, about half of all residents are currently borrowing and have access to a range of different credit sources. Credit unions were the most common source of credit, followed by high-cost credit (moneylenders and catalogues), family and friends, and banks. Emergency borrowing was less evident although problem debt was an issue for at least 20% of residents, suggesting scope for targeted supports for those who find themselves struggling to access more affordable or more serviceable debt.

Despite this, the report found 80% of respondents said they engaged in some form of saving. However, of these, only about half saved regularly. There was a strong desire among residents to save and the findings point clearly towards the need to support regular, formalised, and secure savings mechanisms for residents.

Financial Capability 

The research highlighted that financial capability, measured by the ability to ‘consistently make ends meet, to keep track of finances’ and to ‘plan ahead’, showed considerable room for improvement. Only 9% of residents were deemed to have good financial capability. 64% had some financial capability and 27% had poor financial capability. Crucially, residents were stronger in terms of making ends meet (45%) than they were in keeping track of finances (25%) and planning ahead (9%). The ability of residents to cope week to week through careful household budgeting and limiting consumption, masks the underlying problem that many do not have sufficient income to live comfortably.

Addressing Poverty

The research shows that the root causes of financial exclusion need to be addressed at a broad policy level. While additional support with managing expenses and budgeting household finances will benefit many residents, those with insufficient income need a different range of supports to raise basic or low-income households. For example, introducing a universal basic income for all and increasing rent supplements for those in social housing.

Inappropriate Product Marketing

The report identifies the need for further work on prompting behaviours that encourage saving, lower dependence on credit, and curb advertising and marketing of inappropriate products to vulnerable households. The delivery mechanisms for local financial capability education should be explored. Innovation around the provision of financial autonomy, such as the universal basic income, require deeper examination if persistent and recurring poverty cycles are to be avoided for the most vulnerable members of the community. 

Apart from individual and household level factors, community and societal factors are extremely important influencers of financial well-being. This research suggests that measures to improve the local supportive context of residents would help encourage engagement and exchange of experiences in financial capabilities, while at the same time building a sense of community and social connectedness for those who are reluctant to reach out. 

Recommendations

The report makes some key recommendations including:

  • Increasing the income base/reducing the cost base  
  • Promoting financial inclusion with appropriately designed financial services
  • Building financial capability 
  • Supportive social context

Government Policy

Clúid resident and Chair of the organisation’s National Residents Advisory Group, Debbie Kearney commented on her own experience with financial exclusion by saying: “We had a very unlucky experience, and some might say relatively, it’s an extreme or uncommon one. But people find themselves getting in financial difficulty over small things and that is quite common. We never expected to be in this situation, and it shows that it can happen to anyone!” 

“A change in government policy, professional and community support is what really helped us. Many struggle on their own and it’s natural to bury your head in the sand when you’re in trouble and can’t see a way out. But if the supports are made available, it can help avoid the fear and stigma.” she continued.

“This research shows how community initiatives that support sharing experiences, skills and knowledge can help. But we need government and financial institutions to shape the bigger picture too. Being financially independent, improves your overall well-being. I’m no longer stressed, I sleep better at night and get involved and try and contribute to my community. That’s a better outcome for everyone.”

“We have been lucky. We got through it and again feel like we have our ‘forever home’ with Clúid.  If our story can help and support the experience of just one individual, it will make it all worthwhile.” 

Times of crisis

“Clúid’s vision is ‘a society where everyone has a great place to live’. As a social landlord, our starting point is to provide housing, but we understand that our responsibilities don’t end there. Ensuring that social housing residents have the opportunity to fully participate in society is a key aspect of our work.” commented Kath Cottier, Clúid Housing’s Director of Housing Services.

“This research helps us understand the very real challenges faced by our residents in managing their financial well-being. It highlights how hard it is for people on low incomes, to access financial products that are truly suited to their needs and that will provide a buffer in times of crisis. Clúid will act on the recommendations in this research and work with residents to facilitate building their financial well-being. We have recently signed up to EnergyCloud to help tackle fuel poverty and we are now looking at developing creative local initiatives where residents can learn and share financial skills and knowledge.” she continued.

“However, as the findings of the research outline, to really achieve financial inclusion, we also need a broader policy response to tackle poverty. This means increasing basic incomes as well as making available, a range of appropriate financial products and services that match the lived experience of those on low incomes. I hope by sharing this research, we achieve a collective response that will support people out of poverty and ensure they are fully included in society.” she added.

Professor Michelle Norris, Chairperson of Housing Finance Agency, commented: “I am delighted that the HFA was in a position to contribute towards this worthwhile endeavour and I welcome Clúid’s comprehensive report on financial inclusion among social housing tenants. Access to, and use of, financial services is an increasingly essential requirement for all strata in today’s society, especially given the recent and ongoing challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic. Clúid Housing Association, as the HFA’s largest AHB customer, has loans approved totalling €1 billion for 255 social housing schemes, including the new Affordable Housing Rental scheme earlier this year. The HFA looks forward to continued business with Clúid for new social and affordable housing provision.”

Post-COVID Economy

Dr. Olive McCarthy, Director of the Centre for Co-operative Studies at University College Cork commented: “This research has engaged directly with Clúid Housing residents to examine how they interact with financial services and manage household finances. We are very grateful to the many residents who willingly shared their views on, and day to day experiences of, dealing with financial matters.” 

She added: “The findings have important implications for broader policy on financial services and inclusion and for practical supports that can be offered to build financial capability and longer-term financial resilience. The report, and its recommendations, are particularly timely as we rebuild our post-Covid economy, and the longer term social and economic impacts of the pandemic become more evident and more sharply felt.” 

“Given its very close relationship with its residents, Clúid Housing is well-positioned to engage in tailored initiatives that will equip residents with the financial tools and resources they need.” concluded Dr. McCarthy.