I was queuing in my local shop last week when I noticed an elderly gentleman topping up his meter credit. He was worried that the cost of fuel had become shockingly high, to the point where it was cheaper for him to go and sit in the pub nursing a single pint than to return home.
How can we best look after the most vulnerable during this cost-of-living crisis, leaving aside my own ideological concerns about pre-payment meters? I believe that technology can play an important role not only in maximising rental income and creating efficiencies but also in treating people with respect.
Rent arrears are only likely to increase during the months ahead. People who have paid rent all their lives now find themselves having to choose between paying rent, heating their home or eating properly because they simply can’t afford all three. How can we address arrears in ways that deliver genuine wins for landlords, housing officers and residents alike?
Creating a smarter priority list
Traditional housing management systems rely on a weekly priority list for rent arrears. This usually comes out on a Monday and housing officers work down the list as the week progresses. However, there are limitations to this approach. The housing officer may make an arrears visit to a tenant on a Thursday only to discover that they paid their account the day before, simply because their housing benefit arrived late. Not only does this visit waste the housing officer’s time, it also potentially embarrasses the resident.
RentsConnect, the arrears module within Housing Insight’s PanConnect software, offers a new approach. It uses a near-real-time priority list that updates as the week progresses, so if someone makes a payment in the morning, it’s visible on the system that afternoon, just a few hours later.
Supporting early interventions
But there’s more to arrears than just income analytics or a number in a spreadsheet. Understanding an individual tenant’s situation often requires additional information, and this is stored in the wider PanConnect system so that it’s available to housing officers at the touch of a button. Taking a holistic view of an individual can help to create a positive resolution that minimises arrears and promotes tenancy sustainment.
For example, consider the elderly gentleman I mentioned at the beginning of this article. He might be entitled to the government’s Winter Fuel Payment or other missed benefits that would then enable him to pay his rent. Or he might have been recently bereaved and signposting him to other agencies might help him find coping strategies that include making sure his rent payments don’t get overlooked. PanConnect allows housing officers to understand the root cause of the arrears, taking them one step closer to an early fix.
To use another example, a family might choose to withhold rent because of issues with damp in an unheated home, as we’ve seen in the news. Our system can show the housing officer that a repair request was lodged three weeks before, giving the officer an opportunity to message the repairs staff for an update at any point before, during or after a visit. This progresses the issue faster, potentially resolves the arrears issue, and also helps the resident to feel heard.
Recovering missed rent
The more we can empower tenants to take ownership of their arrears, the more likely they are to repay it. That’s why PanConnect can lead the customer and/or their housing officer through a budget calculator and debt repayment plan. It also offers money advice functionality that can be used to signpost customers and/or housing officers to a specialist in-house money advice team or external agencies such as Citizen’s Advice. This is particularly useful when the tenant has further debts in addition to their rent arrears.
Creating efficiencies for housing providers
Landlords are also under financial pressures. At a time when, due to the exorbitant price of fuel, many housing providers are paying staff expenses fortnightly instead of monthly, it’s very important to use multi-tasking to make each tenant visit as productive as possible.
If a housing officer is visiting a property to discuss arrears with the tenant, they can also be asked to do a quick visual check while they’re there (e.g. to make sure there isn’t any damp in the bedrooms). They log the result on our system during the visit, either eliminating the need for a housing officer to schedule a separate visit or escalating a potential problem to a more specialised operative.
Or perhaps there are gaps in the tenant’s records. If so, any member of staff, from the repairs operative to the arrears officer, can see this within PanConnect and complete the missing data during a visit. They can record information directly onto the system without any duplication, paper notes or needing to return to the office. Wi-fi isn’t even needed because each module in PanConnect will automatically synchronise as soon as an internet connection is available. The entire team can then access the updates, whether they are out on visits, working from home or in the office.
Reducing officer stress
The majority of housing officers are both people-oriented and performance-focused. Whether individual and team performance are tracked according to the level of arrears, number of payments plans created or number of visits/contacts made, this data is available on demand as an integral part of PanConnect.
Housing officers will feel more effective when using a near-real-time priority list because they won’t be contacting residents who didn’t actually need to be contacted. Nor will they need to spend time calling a colleague to say, ‘can you please just check this for me?’ because the information gaps are clearly visible on the system for all staff to see.
And by default, cases in RentsConnect are listed in order of geographical distance, enabling housing officers to optimise time and fuel, twin efficiencies which are further enhanced because they no longer need to go to the office to print or collect documentation.
Minimising rent arrears
Digital technologies can free up both your staff and your finances while delivering an arrears service that prioritises people. These are ethical efficiencies, now available in near-real-time.
Ann Foy is the business development manager at Housing Insight.