The housing sector has seen a boom in the use of mobile apps and online portals in recent years, allowing tenants to update their personal details, report changes in their circumstances, manage rental payments and book property repairs themselves from a PC, phone or tablet.
But as the Covid-19 lockdown continues to bite, is it time for housing providers to think differently about how they use their existing technologies to help them better understand the challenges tenants are coming up against?
Fast pace of change
The current crisis is having a major impact on many people’s lives, bringing significant uncertainty as well as issues such as unemployment, debt and health problems to the doors of those who may not have experienced them before.
Most housing providers already know who their vulnerable residents are, such as the elderly, disabled or those at risk of domestic abuse. But the circumstances of some individuals and families is changing rapidly due to coronavirus and housing providers need to be able to capture the most up-to-date information to help them get the right support in place for residents as quickly as possible.
One way to do this could be to use a self-service portal to send a digital survey directly to residents’ phones or mobile devices. This could provide a regular snapshot of how residents are being affected and housing officers could follow up by other means to reach those who did not or could not respond to the online survey.
By extending surveys beyond housing customers to include households across the local area, it would be possible to identify a healthcare worker in isolation with Covid-19 who needs help with a grocery or prescription delivery or a family that requires support arranging free school meals for their children. This could help to provide a clear and timely picture of the needs of the population so that housing providers can work with other agencies and community groups to ensure appropriate support is available where it is needed.
AI and machine learning technologies are being used by some housing providers to predict geographical population growth over time or forecast when appliances such as boilers or white goods might need replacing, allowing them to plan their budgets accordingly. But the time is right for a fresh look at how these tools could be used.
With the information from the residents’ survey mentioned earlier and a few adjustments to the data-analysis criteria, AI technology can be used to identify the short-term needs of residents, based on their current circumstances. This can help ensure effective measures are put in place to prevent housing officers from being overwhelmed by demands for support.
AI tools can be used to analyse the survey data in conjunction with tenancy information already in the system to identify residents who are most likely to be in distress. Providers can then launch outreach initiatives, where staff make proactive calls to tenants in order of priority to check what support is needed, where, and reduce the number of incoming enquiries.
And rather than flagging which households will need a replacement boiler in the next six months, a housing provider could use the up-to-date survey information matched with financial data already stored in their systems to spot a resident who is likely to need help and advice in relation to rental payments in the next six weeks or even six days.
With the right information at their fingertips, housing officers can ensure residents who are struggling to cope receive the help they might desperately need and trigger anti-poverty measures, where appropriate.
At the heart of the community
During the lockdown and beyond, individuals and families will face new challenges, and circumstances can change in a heartbeat.
Both housing providers and local authorities’ housing departments are in a strong position to be able to work together, in partnership with healthcare, third sector and community groups, to meet the needs of an enormous number of citizens.
The housing sector is at the heart of the community and could provide the fresh thinking and technology needed to support the most vulnerable through these unprecedented times.
Trevor Hampton is the director of housing solutions at Northgate Public Services.