When Bulls Play God

With the Housing Bill making its way through Parliament, rent cuts and a generally rough operating environment the temptation may be to cut back non-core services. But with the Tories intent on reducing state help to a couple of plasters and a turnip, helping communities and individuals (not just building homes) needs to remain a key focus.

If I only had one dollar left I would invest it in an employment advice and tenancy support service.

Bill Gates is often quoted as saying that if he only had one dollar left he would invest it in PR. If I had that dollar I would put it into an employment advice and tenancy support service and it appears many in this sector would agree. Research by the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion found that 67% of housing associations either already ran, or were planning to run, a programme to support customers into work. Many seeing this as a natural extension of their role and an increasingly important priority.

The link between landlord and poverty is an interesting one, with property owners in a unique position to directly (by rent) and indirectly (by additional services) impact (if not solve) the socio-economic security of the tenant. Research on that very subject is available here and neatly highlights the approaches/strategies of the sector and the impact they may have. In addition to this report, the struggles of Gentoo and Circle, both laying off staff as the operating environment toughens, show the balancing act many are having to play.

Well paid, secure work, alongside secure housing, is by far and away the best route out of poverty.

Well paid, secure work, alongside secure housing, is by far and away the best route out of poverty. However, for many living in social housing that is either not a realistic achievement due to physical/mental health issues or because of care commitment (in and of itself an undervalued part of our welfare state). But for others, with help, guidance and sustained support it is. As the report from CESI indicates many have, or are about to, rise to the challenge. It is not uncommon for social landlords to build-in apprenticeships and training opportunities for customers/communities into contracts with 3rd party service providers. Maintenance and repairs organisations in particular. Others match fund, or directly fund specific employment training and/or soft skills courses.

So far, so noble but the issue many organisations currently have is defining the benefits for the business. I’ve never been truly convinced by social value calculations. Yes there are undoubtedly more generic benefits that can loosely be quantified but specific cost benefits to businesses are much harder to define. It often takes years for an individual/households to get over historic debt/arrears issues. Poverty is often an up and down life event, it is seldom static. Most importantly life doesn’t neatly fall into financial years for accounting purposes. That aside what should you actually measure? Arrears? Contact with the organisation? Number of repairs? Often such work throws up more questions than answers.

My fear is that without further work into this area, to provide hard and fast, quantifiable proof that employment support benefits all (the CESI report reckoned about £70million could be shaved off the benefit bill) many will simply withdraw as operating pressures squeeze budgets and organisations play safe. That would be a shame for all concerned. Especially those at the sharp end of George Osborne’s attempts at creating lower tax, lower welfare economy.

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The Communication Conundrum

One of the most mystifying elements of working in/for/with a social landlord is the masochistic tendencies our beloved sector has in relation to customer communications. In particular it is the largely futile practices of customer newsletters that earn my general ire. Even then it’s not the actual concept that bothers me, it’s the lousy execution.

Other than an exercise to keep already busy comms people tied up, unless there is a strategic reason for doing newsletters, brochures or e-shots there is no point in producing them. One of my favourite quotes of all time is largely attributed to Rear Admiral Grace Hooper and is beautifully displayed below. This often seems to be the case for the constant stream of irrelevant items that get sent out to our customers. The frustrating thing is these attempts at engaging with our customer base are largely not worth the effort because they are a shotgun approach as opposed to a targeted one. With our efforts consigned to the dustbin as soon as they are delivered. But, with a bit of refinement, they could deliver a number of business objectives.

Taken from Fighting “We’ve Always Done It This Way” in Workplaces & Baseball by Mark Graban (2014).
Taken from Fighting “We’ve Always Done It This Way” in Workplaces & Baseball by Mark Graban (2014).

To understand my point I will give you an example. I’m one of those sad people who spends their spare time in a big building full of sweaty people repetitively lifting, and then putting down, heavy objects. To help my body recover I regular order whey protein supplements. I’ve used the same supplier for years for a number of reasons;

  1. It’s cheap
  2. They regularly have offers I can use to make my purchases a little bit cheaper
  3. They email me, but only about relevent bits/offers (spoiler alert, this is the key bit)

Whilst some social landlords are heavily concentrated in particular geographical locations (you lucky guys and girls), increasingly many housing providers are not. If you are insistent on sending out information, you need to make sure it is relevant. To do that you need to pay better attention to your data. Sending out newsletters filled with job seminars/workshops to your over 70s population is probably not going to yield great results. Similarly hitting up your u35 population with your next nit-wear/crochet classes isn’t probably going to be a hit either. Although you can never account for hipsters, who just may well love that type of thing.

However, what you can do is look at all customers who reported repairs on boilers/water-pipes last year and make sure any communications they get include tips on how not to shock their boiler into action this winter. Similarly, all of those households who have reported mould/damp/condensation issues can get a handy guide to reducing the impact of those aforementioned issues. Crucially you can do this electronically by either A) emailing said comms out or B) texting with a hyperlink. Both are reliant on smartphones/computer access. Both won’t hit all customers but this approach will save you a lot of money (which you can then use to still hit that small group who have neither via post).

Probably the most apt example of the power of targeted comms I can use is the fact that there’s a person in the south of England who now has a job because of a targeted text out by my organisation. The text literally cost pennies, the results, if not life changing, were life helping.

In sum by doing the above you can:

  1. Save money by reducing postal mail outs (if you haven’t already)
  2. Increase interest in your ‘message’ by providing relevant targeted comms
  3. Change someone’s life for the better

But for god’s sake, don’t just carry on doing the same old thing. Because trust me, it needs to change.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

To Boldy Go Where No-one Has Gone Before

The pragmatist in me knows why voluntary Right to Buy has a significant amount of attraction. If I were in charge of a housing association I would probably have ticked yes myself. But that doesn’t mean a debate shouldn’t have been had. It doesn’t mean that we all have to like it. Being given a week to look over this is frankly unforgivable, it is a grade ‘A’ balls-up however you look at it. But before we all get busy patting ourselves on the back it may be worth reminding ourselves of some uncomfortable facts.

In 1981 England had 7 million units owned by either Local Authorities or Registered Providers, by 2014 this had dropped to 4 million.

In 1981 England had 7 million units owned by either Local Authorities or Registered Providers, by 2014 this had dropped to 4 million. The population in 1981 was just under 46 million, by 2014 it was 54.3 million. I.e we have less social stock for a larger population. Over the past 4 years those accepted as unintentionally homeless has increased from 42,390 in 2010 to 53,410 in 2014. Those living in temporary accommodation has increased from 48,240 (2010/11) to 64,710 (2014/15). Those found to be unintentionally homeless as a result of their assured shorthold tenancy ending has risen from 15% (6,150) of decisions in 2010 to 29% (15,420) in 2014. Those in work, yet claiming housing benefit, surpassed 1 million in 2014 (in 2008 it was just 430,000). In one of the most advanced countries in the world that is outrageous. It also highlights why social housing is needed.

You will no doubt have seen I’ve been vehemently opposed to both Right to Buy (RTB) and ‘Voluntary’ Right to Buy (VRTB). It’s clear that my personal beliefs are quite opposed to a number of those in the sector. I am grateful for the open and frank debates that have been had. It is one of the things I admire about social housing. Difference of opinion is accepted, even encouraged (just don’t expect for your view not to be challenged). Though I must admit talk of a ‘re-set’ in our relationship with Government does nark. Had the sector been better at lobbying, at influencing i.e. had a better relationship with Government in the first place this wouldn’t need to be the case. I don’t work in PR but I doth my cap at those putting a positive spin on one of our greatest failures.

I am 1 of 4 brothers, but I’m the only one who has a permanent contract…

A significant part of my anger, of my unwillingness to accept the extension of Right to Buy in any guise is quite a simple one. Many of you will be talking from position of secure housing. Many of you will be talking from a position of home ownership. I am not. I have family who live in social housing, friends currently wholly or partially reliant on benefits to, you know, live. I am 1 of 4 brothers, but I’m the only one who has a permanent contract (and I was 27 before that beauty came along). Alongside my travails my ladyfriend was made redundant twice in a 6 month period last year. In total we’ve moved 5 times in the last 4 years (all were work and/or affordability related). My family has seen depression, cancer, job losses and death in an uncomfortably short period of time. But the backdrop to all of that was a secure family home. One I ended up living back at for most of 2014.

Out of all my friends (a disparate group of around 20 chaps and chapesses) a grand total of 2 own the property they live in. As such policy developments matter deeply to me. When life is as precarious as outlined above the potential removal of an invaluable safety net is highly alarming. Housing Association properties might be saved by VRTB, but truly social rent via LAs, I’m not so sure. I have been challenged to provide another way. I would politely throw the challenge back.

Whilst I support a true variety of housing; social rent, market rent, home ownership, shared ownership, and all the betwixt and between, from all types of providers. For many just a roof over their head is a priority, yes develop other things but we still need social housing, we still need that base. Because it is often the one secure/reliable facet in the lives of so many vulnerable households. When the dust settles, when we are all back being busily ‘inefficient’ and not building things that may be worth remembering.

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