Northgate Public Services’ development director, Ewan MacLarty, says it’s time to focus on creating more face-to-face and personalised contact with tenants.
A one-size-fits-all approach to housing is in danger of failing tenants as highlighted in a recent report by Shelter. The report revealed that as many as 48 per cent of families in social housing felt ignored or were refused help when reporting issues about poor or unsafe conditions. The Grenfell tragedy has further underlined the importance of not shutting the door on tenants’ concerns.
Truly successful tenant engagement is a two-way process. It’s as much about listening as talking. But in an era of austerity and with greater demands being placed on social housing providers, how easy is it to achieve, and is it possible to adopt a personal approach to create more time for tenants? I think it is – here’s how.
‘Hand’s on’ when it matters most
Giving more time for staff to listen to tenants’ concerns doesn’t have to be consigned to a wish list, despite staff and budgets already being stretched.
Automating essential routine administrative tasks frees staff to identify those who would benefit from a more ‘hands on’ approach. It enables front-line staff to have the flexibility needed to take on the more challenging cases, where the solution to the tenants’ issues might require a multi-agency response.
Considering the wider context too, cuts to other front-line services, such as health, have seen housing staff increasingly having to fill the gaps. Housing officers are now sometimes providing a wider welfare role to some of the most vulnerable, marginalised and poorest sections of our communities. For example, it’s been a few months since the Homelessness Reduction Act came into force and housing providers are playing a vital role in ensuring those entitled to housing are not slipping through the net.
More efficient system processing allows for human intervention and interaction where it’s needed. For many of those living on the streets, coming into an office to make a housing application is a step too far. Automating the more mundane tasks means staff can take a proactive approach to meeting their obligations under the act and get out from behind their desks and help.
A blanket approach isn’t the solution
Not all tenants need the same level of support. So how do you identify those needing a more personalised housing management plan? Having access to customer insights is the key.
Consider a housing officer faced with a tenant in receipt of universal credit who is falling behind with their rental payments. Taken at face value and without access to any other data, reminder letters or chaser emails could be sent out. The result? The situation would probably continue, yet no one would necessarily know why.
Instead, after analysing the data a trend is spotted; the tenant has a history of always paying two weeks late. A phone call or visit could reveal that the tenant doesn’t get paid until two weeks after their rent day and a renegotiation of rental dates could be agreed. The reminders no longer need to be generated and the housing officer can consider other cases.
Successful housing management is about people. It’s about creating a dialogue. Data analysis allows for a conversation to start. It helps providers deliver a targeted approach better suited to the individual tenant’s needs and prevents a destructive cycle of rent arrears from happening. It helps housing offers support tenants and sustain tenancies.
Many tenants have difficult back-stories. For these people, face-to-face contact can help break down barriers and build a relationship built on trust and cooperation. For some, picking up the phone to a housing officer or writing an email to express their concerns or give voice to their needs is simply not an option they would choose. This makes them harder to reach and more difficult to assess and help. For these tenants, a visit to their home can be the answer, and enabling staff to work remotely will go a long way in achieving this.
For example, consider a victim of domestic abuse who might be fearful of leaving a property but who needs to talk about rehousing and rent arrears. A visit to the home by the housing officer, who can directly and securely access the tenant’s personal data and rental history via their tablet device, provides an opportunity to offer more tailored support.
The ability to then complete a form while with the tenant to access partner services (such as a women’s support group) will deliver a response that is very likely to have an impact on the tenant in the long term.
Using mobile technology to release housing officers from being tied to their desks, to interact face-to-face with tenants and listen to their concerns has tangible benefits for both landlord and tenant.
Housing staff can see at first-hand some of the problems facing tenants, such as the impact of anti-social behaviour on the community, and suggest a change of approach, like a resident involvement panel. More meaningful involvement can lead to both increased tenant satisfaction and engagement and greater job satisfaction for staff.
Creating a sense of shared responsibility by using predictive technology to inform and involve tenants in the running and maintenance of their homes will reap dividends in the future. Currently, a significant amount of money is ploughed back into maintenance and property repairs, instead of building new homes or creating better communal spaces.
Take the issue of damp. Installing damp sensors in the roof enables early identification of damp problems and tenants can be given appropriate advice to air the property and future proof against it. Or the data collected could also show that a problem is occurring in a specific block, enabling remedial work to be undertaken before things get too costly or become a health hazard.
Giving tenants greater control by flagging and tracking their repair needs online not only encourages a shared sense of responsibility but it also lends a greater transparency to the process, thereby improving the relationship between tenant and housing provider.
One size doesn’t fit all
The right technology supports housing providers’ focus on the individual and enables a more holistic approach to tenant welfare, ultimately creating more sustainable tenancies. If we want to create a social housing system fit for the future, we need to put tenants at the heart of it. I believe building closer and more meaningful relationships between tenant and landlord is the answer.
Ewan MacLarty is the development director at Northgate Public Services.