Home is the safe haven at the core of people’s lives, so any change to housing policy is bound to cause debate and stir up emotions. In recent months, the subject has moved further up the national agenda, sparking Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to dedicate his first question as leader of the opposition at Prime Minister’s Question Time to the “chronic lack of housing”.
In the same vein as much of the public sector, housing providers have to spend less and deliver more. From April 2016, it’s expected that budgets will be reduced by around 13-16 per cent, or around £130 million in revenues, as a result of lowered social rents. Despite the pressure, however, housing providers are still providing critical services and pioneering new schemes such as shared ownership, all the while continuing to support existing and potential tenants. For now at least, delivering more for less is going to be key.
Technology has a critical role to play to help deliver the same services at a lower cost, without damaging tenant satisfaction. Indeed, the right technology, implemented in the right places can drive up satisfaction through communications and distinctive improvements to tenant services.
Pressures on housing providers are intrinsically linked to the difficulties experienced by tenants. The last few years have seen a sharp rise in enquiries from tenants worried about paying rent. With the imminent cut in the benefit cap from £26,000 to £23,000, 84 per cent of housing providers are expecting rent arrears to increase by an average of 51 per cent. The key to finding a resolution will be communication; the backbone of quality customer service and therefore satisfaction.
While there is no substitute for human contact, smart use of technology can help housing providers deal with rising demand without needing to add more staff. Adopting a multi-channel strategy for example, incorporating social media, email and well-designed and constantly-updated websites alongside traditional face-to-face, telephone and paper-based contact, will encourage greater tenant involvement and take the pressure off stretched teams. A survey by England’s leading tenants’ organisation found that investing in tools such as online forums and social media can produce significant cost savings, as well as social and community benefits. These platforms can also support communication between tenants themselves, encouraging those with common needs and concerns to support one another.
One less-realised impact of major change to housing policy is the number of questions and queries that housing providers are currently receiving. Changes to benefits and housing policy have the potential to confuse, and combined with one of the most complex tax and welfare systems in the world, tenants are turning to housing providers for support. This has been particularly noticeable recently, with changes to universal credit starting to take effect. Being equipped to deal with these dramatic rises in requests, with the right technology to support them is therefore essential to maintaining satisfaction.
As well as improving services, housing providers must also look at how new technology can help them get a better understanding of tenants’ needs.
Tenant satisfaction is a key measure of a housing provider’s success, intimately linked to how well and efficiently the organisation is carrying out key functions such as repairs. It helps managers to understand how well they are meeting tenants’ needs and priorities, and take action to improve operations.
Introducing new technology which combines location and logistical data can help housing providers to service tenants better. By making it quicker and easier to identify on a map the properties where local amenities match specific tenants’ needs, housing providers can allocate the right property to the right tenant. For example, a young family might benefit from being close to green spaces and schools, whereas an elderly person might benefit from being closer to shops and services. With so many tenants to accommodate, evaluating specific needs on a case-by-case basis is time-consuming, so automating the process with relevant data will help to save time and better place people.
Technology can also enable maintenance, gas checks and repairs to be carried out more efficiently by identifying all the outstanding tasks in an area and using route planning to schedule maintenance crews, minimising travel time and ensuring staff make best use of their time. More tasks can be completed quickly, while also providing a faster and more efficient service to tenants. By improving time and resource management and, ultimately, productivity, housing providers can continue to keep their tenants happy, despite pressures on funding.
Housing providers face immense challenges as they strive to balance their books while achieving their aims of providing high-quality housing, creating successful tenancies and delivering wider social goals. As recent changes in government policy have shown, nothing about the environment they operate in is set in stone. To succeed in this difficult climate, housing providers need to transform themselves and find new ways to develop thriving communities with satisfied tenants supported by happy employees.
As we move into 2016, the next step for the housing community must be the adoption of innovative technologies to improve communication, deliver more for less and ensure tenant satisfaction is continually high.
Luke Stewart is the geo-practice manager at Ancoris.