By Ian Cowley, Principal Data Engineer at Amido.
With vulnerable people accounting for a significant proportion of housing association tenants, the social housing sector has a duty of care that reaches far beyond simply providing shelter. As the burden falls on facilities managers and staff to services thousands of properties and tenants’ needs, there’s a meaningful role for social housing businesses and local authorities to play in improving the quality of human life. Calling on technology – and particularly the Internet of Things (IoT) – may just be the best place to start.
With more than 1,600 social housing providers in the UK providing homes to around 4 million households with a low income or in need of extra support, the responsibility of these businesses to provide a high-level of service and care cannot be underestimated. Yet this provision needs to be delivered alongside the challenges of running a lean business (more than 96% are under local authority or not-for-profit private ownership) and meeting demanding new standards set by the government.
Good quality, affordable and safe housing is a vital part of good mental and physical health. Housing with poorly maintained services and facilities, damp, and mould, or even noise issues can affect both the physical well-being and emotional state of tenants. A person’s home shouldn’t just be a roof over their head, but also a safe, supportive place to live.
But one in five dwellings in England doesn’t meet basic standards of stability and security, having the space to meet the households needs, and providing somewhere tenants can feel safe and comfortable, while remaining connected to the community, their work, and services . Recent reports by ITV News  – and responses by senior politicians – have also shone a spotlight on poor conditions across social housing and the subsequent need to create a system of checks and a much-improved approach to repair and maintenance.
From reactive to proactive
Repairs and maintenance are some of the highest costs that housing associations (HAs) must shoulder, with an estimated £5.51bn being spent each year on social housing upkeep . This is underpinned by repeated, often responsive, tasks and improving the scheduling and predictability of these jobs can have a positive impact on the cost, help housing officers better manage their time, and improve the quality of life for tenants.
The Internet of Things (IoT) approach can help build a picture of patterns of repairs across properties, with unintrusive digital sensors alerting central maintenance teams to issues or potential issues even before the tenant is aware. IoT sensors throughout homes sensitively located on, for example, boilers, humidity sensors and in electrical equipment – coupled with an appropriate integrated platform for alerting, analytics, and data management – can provide the intelligence needed to turn maintenance and repairs to a more proactive service. Through trend and pattern analysis this can enable housing associations to provide and sustain higher quality housing solutions that consistently meet standards that are conducive to healthy living.
By also giving tenants an online portal to raise and track their repair and maintenance requests, HAs can reduce the admin time on answering calls and messages, and develop a self-service culture that empowers tenants while releasing facilities teams to focus on higher value tasks. National standards for social housing landlords call for them to offer tenants a choice of solution providers and – by doing this automatically, through an online offering – this can speed up decision making and help tenants get resolution for any issues earlier.
Notting Hill Genesis housing association, who operate across London and the southeast, were dealing with thousands of residents’ requests. Manual processes and old technology meant that issues could take days to address. By investing in a new ‘housing as a service’ platform with Amido they are now able to give all residents access to services 24/7, without having to invest in 24/7 support. This self-service approach has already delivered as much as 30% time saving for the business.
Less time on repairs, more time on relationships
Like NHG, housing associations that empower tenants with self-serve solutions, and run proactive maintenance through high quality data analysis, can change the way their staff interact with tenants for the better. By creating an operation where issues can be resolved quicker – or prevented in the first place – housing officers can spend more time in the field, meeting with tenants face-to-face and better understanding their customers. With fit-for-purpose, connected technology underpinning most operations, staff can also access and manage key business processes on mobile devices giving them more flexibility and time to spend on proactive improvements and tenant care.
Safety and security
People who live in social housing are more likely to live alone and five times more social tenants are widowed than private tenants , reflecting the older age of these local authority and housing association households. Add to this the recent reports that – following the pandemic – a third of adults under 35 living in social housing reported feeling lonely often or always  and it becomes increasingly important for housing associations to put in place measures to support these vulnerable tenants.
IoT technology has a huge role to play in making social housing safe and secure. By creating a network of unintrusive data gathering points and establishing the right connected platform to set appropriate parameters and responses, this information can help social housing businesses to provide a safety net for vulnerable tenants. This can range from simple temperature sensors – where, if levels in a property fall below a certain point, housing officers can call the tenant to check all is well – to more complex data sets. Bringing asset, tenancy and health data together housing associations can identify patterns or anomalies and act on these to protect tenants. The use of smart kettles or televisions, for example, can provide a low-impact, non-intrusive route to provide more tailored care for vulnerable tenants. Tracking patterns in usage of these everyday devices can help raise the alarm when those patterns change dramatically and, with personalised alerts and data streams for family and carers, the tenant can manage their own safety and security.
For all tenants, smart locks, video doorbells, door sensors and fire sensors can keep their homes safe, and the tenant’s and housing association’s property protected. Through connected technologies HA businesses can collate data and analyse trends and – using cloud connectivity – could even take the opportunity to run centralised monitoring of multiple sites.
The social and human value of investing in tech
Investment in housing for people who are mentally, physically, or financially vulnerable benefits more than the individual. For every £1 invested in housing support, almost double that is returned in value through avoiding costs to public services such as social care, health, and crime .
For many housing associations the cost of implementing a fully connected technical solution may seem daunting but it brings with it the benefits of reduced operational costs, the release of housing officers time, and the opportunity to bring staff and tenants closer together. Investing in a connected solution now can also provide a flexible platform for growth and the delivery of enablers to tackle the new standards laid out in the charter for social housing.
IoT and cloud technologies help empower communities and gives tenants the tools to be proactive in managing their home and their safety. It’s time for technology to start taking some of the burden for housing associations.
Ian Cowley in a Principal Data Engineer at cloud-native consultancy, Amido. Ian started his big data journey over 10 years ago. Having worked on a variety of projects from housing association data platforms to massive scale grid computing during the emergence of big data, Ian has fast become a thought leader on business transformation through data driven decisions.