It might seem odd to claim that residents are unaware of the housing provider who maintains their home, but it’s an issue that has recently risen to our attention. With the average social housing tenancy lasting significantly longer than the equivalent private rental tenancy - some residents can become alarmingly out of touch with their landlords. Despite many provider’s best efforts, residents can easily fall through the cracks. This is not the case for all residents - but as tenancies move increasingly towards high-efficiency, low-engagement technologies (automatic payments and outsourced or remotely conducted visits) the problem is likely to grow. Three main areas that are cause for concern.
Mergers are making it difficult to keep track of landlords
As the government has increasingly encouraged the merging of underperforming housing providers, the frequency of these mergers has increased. In 2018, there were a staggering 42 mergers completed between housing providers and the pace is only increasing. This by itself isn’t necessarily a problem - but the increasing speed has led to many of the original housing provider names being completely subsumed. A prime example of this is Clarion. Clarion was a merger between Affinity Sutton and Circle Housing Group. What some might not remember, however, is that both Affinity Sutton and Circle Housing Group are themselves the results of mergers. Affinity Sutton was a merger of Affinity Homes Group and William Sutton. Circle Housing Group was formerly Circle 33 and Anglia. In the space of 12 years, those housing providers essentially disappeared. A resident who signed a lease with Anglia in 2004 would now have their property managed by Clarion with seemingly no link between the two.
In theory, this issue should be resolved through communication. As standard during a merger, all residents on both sides are made aware of the upcoming merger with plenty of notice but the channels by which this can be communicated are often limited. If a resident has not given an up to date phone number or email address to their housing provider, the only reasonable fallback is to use post. As such thousands of letters are sent out detailing the upcoming merger and the effects it will have on residents. Unfortunately, letters have some of the lowest confirmed open rates of any communication channel which means there is often no guarantee that any of these messages have been received. These two issues combined mean many residents are increasingly losing track of their landlords. Direct Debits mean that their rent is automatically being processed and many housing providers rely on external contractors to do their annual gas safety inspections and other maintenance callouts.
Without digital channels, residents can become completely disconnected
For many of us, the problem described above should be easily overcome. I can simply google the name of my housing provider and with a bit of digging find out the story of their merger. In the case above of Anglia googling their name, for example, returns Clarion’s website as its top result. This process, however, isn’t as simple when it comes to residents who are digitally isolated. What is a simple 10-minute task with the help of omniscient Google is now a mammoth task that can seem too large to tackle. Residents often keep a hold of information that they think is important - many times keeping all of the original information pack given to them on move-in but this might not have the answers they need. The support numbers might have changed, the postal addresses no longer in use. Without access to the internet, it can be nearly impossible to find the right number to call to address a problem. In this scenario, you can easily see how a resident who has a genuine housing issue might instead choose to simply live with the issue rather than do their best Poirot impression and figure out the recent history of their housing provider. Unfortunately, this is a problem that is likely to continue to compound as housing providers across the country look to use digital technologies to improve the quality of service they provide. Those who are digitally isolated can’t use web chats to get the answers they need. The issue of digital inclusion is much larger than just residents failing to contact their landlords, however. We did a whole piece about the impact it has on their lives and the damage it can do.
Overstretched housing support functions can make the process for residents even harder
Should a resident manage to overcome all of the issues above, they still might need to contend with a resident support function that is vastly overstretched. When a resident does finally get through to the right housing provider to talk about their issue, they aren’t likely to have the patience to keep chasing that provider to ensure work gets done. Unfortunately, there are several examples in recent months of residents falling through the cracks when it comes to repairs. Residents who have been waiting more than a year for repairs due to damp, a key worker whose ceiling collapsed after repeatedly warning their housing provider about the problem and the same problem happening with a different housing provider months prior. All of these instances had residents who were persistent in contacting their housing providers and unfortunately, they were not appropriately served. It is a disaster waiting to happen when residents have to struggle to find their landlords - and when they do they might still have to be persistent to get problems addressed.
So what can be done about it?
There is no quick fix for this problem, but a start is to ensure that communication channels are far more effective. If residents are aware of the major changes happening inside of their housing providers then the problem never gets as large. They know who their housing provider has become and where to contact them. Also, with a proper digital communication channel, two way and accountable communication can take place. Housing providers are aware of the time and date that their messages were received and can ensure that every resident has been accounted for. Residents can directly contact their housing provider no matter what name they are going by - irrelevant of the status of their internet connectivity. This should mean that residents never fall so far behind that they lose track of their landlord all together.