The Social Housing Strategy 2020 approved and published by the government in 2014 attracted lots of investors, developers, Approved Housing Bodies and financiers in a bid to provide or finance social housing across the country.

As a result, the Social Housing Current Expenditure Programme creates an avenue for Approved Housing Bodies (AHBs) to build or buy properties using private funding. The units are then leased through local authorities and AHBs to provide social housing at a rate lower than the market rent, i.e. 50% of the market value.

However, these recent changes only made housing more expensive to the targeted low-income earners with the rent rates going up to 80% of the prevailing market rates. And, with the increasing reliance on housing associations and private developers to construct the houses that the population urgently needs, we can only expect the prices to soar even higher.

Apart from the surging rent rates, the social housing sector is bound to experience lots of other changes:

Changes in the Housing Sector

Funding for Social Housing

Since the Conservatives took office, the number of new government-funded houses constructed for social rent reduced by a staggering 97%. The years 2010 and 2011, when Tories came into power, saw over 36,700 new socially rented houses constructed compared to a sad 1102 houses between the years 2016 and 2017.

During the same period (2010-2017) the number of affordable homes funded by the government reduced to 27,792 from 55,909. These figures only warn of worse days to come spawned by the recent changes in housing policies. While the changes were implemented in a bid to provide affordable housing, the houses are now marketed at higher rates.

Changes in Customer Expectations

While the main principles of customer service remain timeless, customer expectations keep on evolving especially with the advent of a technological culture. To begin with, social media has redefined the meaning of fast.

Users can post something on Twitter or Facebook and get instant feedback. Such innovations have changed customer expectations even when it comes to social housing. Social media has particularly created an open book approach that has led consumers to expect that brands should monitor and respond to comments and complaints.

Additionally, the availability of FAQ pages, customer reviews and call centre IVR has created a culture where customers want to solve problems themselves.

Challenges in the Social Housing Sector

Cost of Managing Contact Centre Enquiries

The way people connect with their service providers is changing rapidly. The amount of time adults spend using the internet has significantly increased throughout the country. The growth in personalisation of customer services, e.g. through social media has caused the government to push towards digitalising these services.

A Housing Association event held in 2014 had delegates reporting increased use of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram by tenants. In fact, social media accounts for 2.5% of interactions in most contact centres with 94% responding via Twitter. It just shows how much customer interaction with service providers has changed.

Rent Regulation

The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 required approved social housing providers to reduce social housing rent by 1% every year to 2020. This policy was effective from 1st April 2016 though it was not prescriptive as to how the 1% rent reduction would be implemented.

Previously, the rent increased by 1% more than the inflation rate- a formula that was intended to be used for ten years. It had caused rent rates to increase significantly with social housing rents increase by 20%.

While most tenants welcomed the rule with much jubilation, the Housing Association estimated the lost revenue would prevent 27,000 new homes from being constructed. Social landlords, on the other hand, expected the rental income to reduce by 15%.

Stock and Asset Management

In housing, a well-maintained asset tends to last longer. However, the current social housing environment makes it challenging for housing associations and landlords to manage their assets effectively.

With reduced public-sector funding, very little cash is left for maintenance programs. It tempts the majority of social landlords to reduce current and long-term maintenance spending.

When it comes to stock, the housing association will thrive better if it diversifies its tenure mix from the predominant commercial perspective. It should explore innovative approaches like modular housing while taking advantage of technological advances to reduce overheads.

How the Challenges are Creating Opportunities for Social Housing Providers

Cost of Managing Contact Centres

It calls for the Housing Association to set up a social media management centre where transactions are automated, while the time required for administering and reporting using fully integrated systems optimises time efficiencies.

Phone calls and live chats should also be integrated into the system as much as emails and social media platforms are used. The systems should also be joined to allow effective control over each enquiry and how it is handled.

Rent Regulation

The numerous rent regulations leave both the tenants pressed for good living conditions. Social landlords, on the other hand, want to comply with the regulations without cutting back on their profits.

As such, deploying various forms of technology offers an opportunity for them to automate systems in a manner to improve business efficiencies while enhancing tenancy management.

Stock and Asset Management

Reduced government funding, rent, and other factors may cause social landlords to overlook important issues like maintaining social housing properties. On the flip side, it also creates unique opportunities for Social Housing providers to leverage, i.e. by taking advantage of new technologies.

Housing officers can now update customer information online, request system checks and liaise with the social housing contact centre from the comfort of his phone, tablet or PC.

Digital Transformation Technologies Used to Solve the Challenges

The incorporation of various technologies will help solve the challenges while adding value and optimising efficiencies as part of a cohesive digital transformation process.

Here’s a breakdown of what some of these technologies look like:

The Internet of Things (IoT)

IoT is a network of computing devices such as electronics, sensors, software and home appliances, among other gadgets that allow these objects to exchange data. The technology comes in handy for social landlords as they can use it to determine how their assets are performing without physically inspecting them.

Smart housing driven by IoT: landlords are already using the advanced laser scanning and UAVs to change, repair and conduct maintenance on their properties. Connected boilers, for example, can report faults before tenants recognise problems, which lead to significant cost savings.

Digital Self Service

As earlier highlighted, there is an increasing need for self-service options for tenants. Digital self-service helps social landlords to provide a superior level of service that is convenient to the customer as they can now access the landlord’s system anytime using a phone, PC or tablet.

Another notable benefit of a digital self-service portal is cost saving. If the landlord is compelled to make a personal visit to solve the issue, he will be able to spend up to £16, not to mention, the cost of making a phone call, which could amount to a further £6.

Using the self-service portal, however, will cost less than £1. Glasgow-based housing association, for example, launched a digital app that would help tenants engage with the Association easily.

Chat Bots

The platform was invented to help support people who don’t have lots of confidence in digital platforms and prefer using the social housing contact centre. Chatbots simulate human conversations and provide a real-time customer experience.

The premise of inventing this platform was to help recently-evicted tenants to apply for government housing. Earlier on, the government had declared that there would be the removal of automatic entitlement to housing benefit for young people aged 18-21 years.

However, a large number of young people (56%) cited they wouldn’t know the kind of help or support they were entitled to. In fact, the year 2015 saw evictions rise to 53%, i.e. 42,728 households since 2010.

As a result, the government launched Centrepoint Helpline, a national support service for young people who could be homeless and needed advice.

Users only need to type the question, and Chat Bot asks a few questions and provides the required information. It also adds a legally sound application that maximises that applicant’s chance of getting a house.

Contact Centres

With Housing Associations realising that their overly connected tenants expect immediate feedback and consistent support and service from all digital points, they have set up contact centres.

The centres support all kinds of communication media- email, live chat, social media platforms and phone calls to ensure real-time and non-real time responses.

Additionally, it allows senior adults who mostly prefer voice-based communications to reach the contact centre.

Data Life Cycle Management

Digitising social housing systems presents a unique set of challenges:

• Rapid growth of data from IoT, social media and other sources
• Compliance with local regulations as a result of global business operations
• Lack of knowledge about management and storage of data
• Data storage in different locations and various formats

Data lifecycle management involves the development and implementation of a plan that can help address the challenges that arise with unprecedented growth of data, governance and compliance.

It includes data storage, cloud archiving, off-site media vaulting and cloud data replication.