Given the current economic environment, it’s not surprising that rent arrears are increasing and taking their toll on housing providers’ income.
Keeping people in their homes is a key priority for housing providers. Tenancies that go the distance provide the perfect win-win situation. They are better for the wellbeing of residents and maintain a steady income stream for housing providers. They also avoid a cost of around £8,000 to evict someone.
But how can housing providers’ income officers know whom to help? Their workload is growing and they might have 500 cases to look at when they come into work. Housing providers need to find new ways to prioritise cases so that any help is focused on where it will have the greatest impact.
Joining up the dots
Housing providers can hold minefields of disjointed data. Separate tools will show customer relationship management, repairs and arrears. Income staff may not have access to all the systems and will need to look in many different areas to obtain a complete view of a customer’s circumstances so that crucial details aren’t missed. Poring over large spreadsheets, switching between systems and cross-checking data takes time which could be better spent dealing with customers.
With a consolidated approach to your data, you can check if a customer is up-to-date with their rent, service charges, garage rent and rechargeable repairs. You can also see if there have been other arrears actions and if debts have been increasing in the weeks and months. This information all helps understand the overall ‘direction of travel’ regarding arrears.
By unifying the data, analytics can even predict a person’s likelihood of paying their rent on time. Preventative action, such as implementing a payment plan, can then be taken before a resident falls into more serious financial difficulties.
What’s really going on?
But even if data is pooled, if that data is out-of-date then it won’t help an income officer dealing with a family at risk of losing their home.
Household circumstances can change quickly. A customer can develop a health problem or welcome a new addition to the family. The housing system needs to reflect what’s going on in real-time.
This allows your system to highlight what the potential problem with late rent might be so a more nuanced approach can be adopted. Perhaps something as simple as offering fuel or food vouchers to someone who is off ill or just had a baby will help ease things enough to get them back on track with rent payments.
It’s good to ensure that the teams that input data are aware of how important the information they enter is and the potential impact it can have on supporting customers. This helps ensure staff prioritise keeping records updated.
Remove the fear
Furthermore, the nature of each customer engagement can change if staff have all the data. If an income officer can visit a resident forearmed with the knowledge that there has been a long running repair logged, they can provide an update and let them know when the repair is scheduled. This starts the conversation on a different footing and demonstrates they are there to help, not just debt collect.
Signposting to financial assistance or using internal ‘extreme need’ funds also positions income officers in a more supportive role. This creates a relationship of mutual trust and collaboration with customers. Residents will be encouraged to come forward earlier with concerns if they’re confident that they will be listened to and get help.
With the renewed focus in our sector on consumer standards, housing providers need to prove they are putting residents’ needs first and not evicting people without trying everything else first.
Income officers do vital work in this area as a key point of contact. Arming them with knowledge and information that focuses on prevention rather than debt recovery leads to much better outcomes for both residents and housing providers.
Richard Cookson is the lead product manager at NEC Housing.