Housing providers face dramatic funding cuts at a time of rising social needs, while calls for the sector to deploy a housing network act as an springboard for those most in need. At Race Online 2012, we see technology as the way to meet these twin imperatives; it allows housing providers to deliver more for less and to fulfil their social commitments to tenants.
Currently 70 per cent of all social housing tenants do not use the internet. The majority of these people are in the social groups C2DE, do not have basic and/or any academic qualifications, or are retired or not working.
Internet skills are vital in lowering unemployment, expanding social networks, reducing isolation and improving wellbeing and educational attainment among individuals and educational achievements among children. They are also the key to building thriving and sustainable communities.
As well as the considerable social returns, there is a sound business case for housing providers to think ‘internet first’. Technology can provide large efficiency and productivity gains, better-engaged customers and lower transaction costs. The benefits include:
Customers can access services quickly and cheaply around the clock, meeting TSA requirements that all tenants have adequate opportunities to influence the services they receive, combined with more accurate and tailored responses.
Lower interaction costs, such as for maintenance requests, directly helping to meet TSA requirements relating to value for money.
Reduced rent arrears due to increased adoption of Direct Debit payments and access to online banking. Some housing providers are also introducing their own online rent accounts so that tenants can check their balance, make payments (and more) through their website.
The promotion of financial inclusion via online financial advice services.
Building a vital bridge as more government services move online.
Better community regeneration through hyper-local/neighbourhood sites providing tools for communication between residents as well as with housing providers and enabling cost-savings through shared services.
Reduce social costs due to digital inclusion, such as unemployment, low skills, geographical isolation in rural areas, or reduced travel costs for residents.
Peabody Trust case study
The Peabody Trust has forecast savings per online contact of £2.64 vs. telephone contact and £9.44 vs. face-to-face contact. If tenant contacts (of which there were 125,300 in 2009) were moved online, Peabody estimates an annual saving of over £330,000, and just by moving repairs and maintenance enquiries online, Peabody believes it would save around £220,000 per year. Furthermore, transaction costs would fall by 8 per cent if all rents were paid online (currently only 5 per cent). It also expects fewer rent arrears and faster and cheaper income collection processes.
Housing providers should think ‘internet first’ when it comes to talking to their customers and make an organisational commitment to digital; seize the opportunity to hardwire new builds with internet access, invest in shared community hubs in all properties, provide training directly or in partnership with local colleges, direct tenants to training and support sites or embed computer skills in existing training programmes, and run laptop recycling or loan schemes.
But Race Online 2012 believes Peabody’s insight to be the exception, with a dearth of adequate empirical data supporting digital initiatives. It is calling on housing providers to address this and many, including Hyde Group, Affinity Sutton and Poplar Harca, have signed a pledge to compile business cases and protect the longevity of their digital technology programmes. Numerous public-sector bodies, including NIACE, UK Online and the Charity Learning Consortium, are backing this call, urging more housing providers to do the same.
Ben Carpenter is charity partnerships manager for Race Online 2012.