Social landlords and the pandemic

Social landlords ended pandemic with lower rent arrears after 'overnight cultural and legal changes'

Many social landlords ended the pandemic with lower rent arrears than at the beginning after “overnight cultural and legal changes” transformed how they worked with tenants, a new report shows, as published by HQN.

‘What happens when the rule book is taken away’, commissioned by PlaceShapers, whg and the National Housing Federation, looks at how social landlords responded to the prospect of skyrocketing arrears as more tenants were forced into economic hardship and the ‘eviction ban’ changed systems and processes overnight.

The report shows that new ways of working “gave the opportunity for greater insight and empathy into tenants’ lives” and tenants “embraced the greater trust needed” once established processes had to be set aside. By the end of the pandemic two thirds of landlords reported arrears had fallen.

As staff got to grips with a fast-changing external environment, more tenants than ever needed support. Staff found themselves needing to work in different ways because of lockdown restrictions; this usually meant working from home, often outside conventional hours and using technology like Teams and Zoom which made ‘face to face’ conversations – albeit digitally – easier to have. Overnight legal changes meant formal processes had to be set aside.

Rather than tenants fearing they could make things worse if they talked to their landlords about financial problems, they were having earlier conversations and building trust.

Twenty organisations, including Teign Housing, Gloucester City Homes, Stockport Homes and Saxon Weald, explain how lockdown changed how they manage rent arrears, and how they have embedded these changes since.

The report summarises seven lessons for the future for social landlords:

1.    Change can be faster than thought: the speed with which income teams adapted to new ways of working shows how adaptable and resilient the sector can be.

2.    Enforced change creates opportunities: The pandemic created very specific business risks in relation to income management and risks and opportunities to do things differently taken by organisations have paid off.

3.    Most people respond well to flexibility and trust:  Greater trust, outside of established processes, showed tenants’ commitment to maintaining a clear rent account.

4.    A supportive approach can be just as effective as enforcement, if not more so:  Most participants improved their income management performance.

5.    Eviction for rent arrears should never be seen as a success: Eviction is expensive in terms of staff time, legal costs, rent loss and void costs, as well as the potentially catastrophic human costs.

6.    Person-centred services enable deeper job satisfaction: Many colleagues were able to ‘unlock’ empathy and collaborate with tenants to enable to keep them afloat.

7.    Technology can improve our working lives and enhance services: rather than ‘dehumanising’, it can enable flexibility, bolster trust and help target empathetic, personalised relationships.

Fay Shanahan, Corporate Director of Operations at whg, said: “We quite often hear that one of the positive things to come out of the pandemic is a better sense of community that saw us pulling together to support our neighbours and rally around to care for those in need of help in a way we haven’t before.

“This was true for our income collections teams too. The feeling across the country that we were all in it together meant housing associations across the country were approaching things differently.

“Tenancy sustainment has always been a keen priority for social housing providers. However, the suspension of traditional legal enforcement options available to teams to deal with rent arrears also made a change in approach vital.

“As we look to the future, black clouds loom. Inflation is at a 30-year high and energy prices are soaring which will leave many of our customers choosing between heating and eating. We can’t solve the cost-of-living crisis but lessons from this report will help us support our customers to stay safe in their homes.”

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