Colourful block of flats

A paradigm shift in social housing

28.09.21 Written by Hejab Azam

Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a greater push towards digital adoption across the housing sector. Social landlords, who are encouraging the use of self-service platforms and embracing digital communication, are helping to empower tenants by giving them a voice. But the reality is, calls for change and efficiencies in housing were being made even before the pandemic.

Many housing associations had plans to move away from dated systems and improve cost efficiencies with better technology. According to the Charted Institute of Housing report 2018, 79% of housing providers saw cost efficiencies as a driving factor for their digital transformation efforts. The report also revealed that self-service platforms could reduce call centre costs and the number of simple queries by allowing users to access information and carry out simple tasks themselves.

However, it’s not just cost efficiencies that are driving digital transformation. There is a greater shift in housing to improve tenant experience and ensure tenants’ voices are heard. Preventable social housing disasters— often as a result of tenants being ignored—has led to greater compliance, stricter regulation and a new set of standards to hold landlords to account.

Tenants aren’t being listened to

After several public scandals and tragedies in social housing, residents are calling for reform, and policy makers are doing more to make social landlords accountable.

In the wake of the devastating Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, the government set to put the Fire Safety Act 2021 into force, to ensure more stringent fire safety measures in budlings with multiple occupiers. Since then more investigations into social housing failures have revealed that, in many instances, tenants’ complaints were being ignored.

Earlier this year ITV investigated and reported dangerous and mould-infested flats in Croydon. Several housing experts described this as the worst they had ever seen. One family had been living in a flat infested with black mould. The ceiling had a gaping hole, caused by leaks that hadn’t been repaired. The family was also living without light and electricity in their bathroom for the past five years. This was despite making several complaints—which were not dealt with or taken seriously.

More recently, a woman was crushed by her collapsing ceiling, highlighting yet another shocking social housing failure.  This was caused by a leaking ceiling which neighbours had been reporting for the past seven years. One of the neighbours expressed to ITV, “No-one is listening. No-one cares. It just falls on deaf ears and then it gets to the point where you give up.”

It’s basic things like not being able to arrange repairs and not having complaints dealt with fairly and in a reasonable time frame, which allows such disasters to happen.

Since the announcement of the social housing white paper following Grenfell, proposals have been set in motion to make sure social housing tenants are listened to and treated with respect.

Demands for better regulation

The social housing white paper

The social housing white paper has set out clear standards to hold landlord to account and give tenants more transparency. There’s a greater emphasis on health and safety, tenant voice, performance monitoring and home ownership as well as an enhanced role for the Housing Ombudsman and The Regulator of Social Housing.

Since the white paper, The Housing Ombudsman has put into place its new Complaints Handling Code which landlords have to self-assess against. The Ombudsman are also publishing online reports on the complaints handled for each landlord and its outcome. Every quarter, they will publish complaint handling failure orders which name the landlords and reason for failure.

The Regulator is also introducing a four-yearly inspection cycle in which they will review the KPIs, complaints, risks and non-compliance of social landlords.

Local Digital Declaration

Some of the key deliverables in the white paper are related to how social landlords communicate with tenants. Residents have been told that they should expect their complaints to be dealt with fairly and promptly, treated with respect, have their voices heard by their landlord and know how their landlord is performing.

Digital technology is enabling social landlords to action the deliverables in the social housing white paper and improve their standards in line with latest reforms and regulations. With better technology, social landlords can engage more efficiently with tenants and speed up processes around complaints and tenant communication.

In a joint effort to accelerate more efficient processing in the housing sector, local authorities are also signing the government’s Local Digital Declaration to raise standards for residents. The declaration was initiated by the UK Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Government Digital Service as well as a group of local authorities and sector bodies. Its purpose is re-shape public services using digital tools and technology to drive transformation.

A stark contrast during the pandemic

Although changes were in motion in the housing sector, the pandemic created a stark contrast between proactive housing associations and those who were falling behind.

Those social landlords that had resident experience at the core of their strategy could respond quickly to the needs of tenants because they had the tools, processes and data to do so—making them more future proof. However, for social landlords who couldn’t digitally adapt quickly enough, the pandemic has been more of a challenge. With a shortage of staff and no change in funding, keeping up with the demand from tenants is tough. Residents’ queries and complaints cannot get picked up fast enough because of staff shortages and so tenants are often left dissatisfied and frustrated.

And even if there are intentions to accelerate digital transformation plans, often bottlenecks can get in the way. Migrating from legacy systems can cause possible long-term disruptions because of existing processes and inflexible infrastructure.   Many transformation programmes take as long as five years, but landlords cannot afford to wait that long.  They need a way to support residents now without causing too much disruption.

How technology is solving the challenges in housing

Thankfully technology can help reduce these challenges for social landlords.

Democratising access to information and services

Self-serve solutions are helping to democratise access to services and information for residents. Solutions like Futr’s AI powered chatbot and live chat, overlay existing systems and give residents a slicker and seamless experience.

This solves three problems for landlords. Firstly, it doesn’t require the more challenging and time-consuming project of replacing legacy systems. Secondly, it pulls out disparate information from different systems to serve up to the resident through one channel. And thirdly, it instantly gives residents an efficient way to get in touch with their landlord and get the answers they need, anytime, anywhere.  

Prioritising urgent queries

Often contact centre staff are overwhelmed with phone calls, many of which are related to transactional and repetitive queries. Self-serve and signposting for things like paying rent or booking repairs, can help reduce the burden on staff so that they can prioritise urgent enquiries and be there for those tenants with more complex issues.

Empowering customer service agents

Other housing associations are taking advantage of multilingual live chat solutions for those who want to speak to a customer service agent. This is empowering customer service agents to respond to more than one query at a time—which is not always possible over the phone. It also ensures a more efficient experience for residents—leaving them more satisfied.

It’s now or never

Tenants have been demanding better service from their landlords for years. Social housing disasters have highlighted the need for change, and the pandemic has acted as a catalyst for that change.  Technology is helping social landlords give a voice to tenants and improve the standards of their service in line with regulations and guidelines.

So, now is the time to embrace technology and digital channel shift. It’s what regulators expect, but most importantly, it’s what residents need.

Transform resident experience

Learn more about how Futr’s chatbot and live chat solution is helping social landlords transform resident experience.

  • Published 28.09.21
  • By Hejab Azam
  • In Housing