Preparing social housing for the future

As economic hardship continues to rise in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, Shaun Aldis, chief executive of Wolverhampton Homes, argues a rise in homelessness doesn’t have to follow as a consequence. Here, he examines how with the right tools, authorities can keep figures as low as they have been during the Covid-19 pandemic or even lower

Stay at home, save lives. The measures imposed during lockdown underlined the importance of having a roof over your head for health, for safety and security, for home schooling or for work. And yet for many, with the worrying increase in unemployment figures, the threat of becoming homeless has never felt so palpable a possibility as it does now.

Now more than ever, the need to identify risk and intervene early is crucial if authorities are to keep people in their homes and off the streets. Technology had already started to play a vital role in helping housing providers tackle the challenges of a pre-Covid-19 world, and we’ve witnessed first- hand the positive impact emerging innovations can have on the safety, security and wellbeing of residents.

There is enormous potential for technologies such as digital communications, AI and IoT to transform the way housing providers support their most vulnerable residents and relieve some of the pressures the housing sector face.

Getting ahead of the curve
The precarious economic situation facing many who have been furloughed and are now facing redundancy, together with those who have been unable to return to work because of illness or shielding, pose a real threat of adding to the numbers as the ‘new’ homeless.

According to the housing charity Shelter, an estimated 227,000 adult renters have fallen into arrears since the start of the pandemic and even with the extension to the national eviction ban, councils are bracing themselves for an unwanted rise in the number of potential residents facing homelessness. Health officials are already warning an ‘avalanche’ of homelessness could drive up Covid-19 infection rates, fuelling the prospect of a second wave.

Staying Alert
It’s vital then, that authorities can identify risk factors like financial stress at an early stage and target support before the threat of eviction becomes a reality. Having access to good quality data means we can anticipate difficulties and work together with residents to find a solution before it becomes a crisis.

A 360-degree view of residents gives us the opportunity to see the whole picture and step in with early practical support. For instance, if a person is on a zero hours contract and the fluctuation in earnings has led to erratic payment behaviour. They could be given anti-poverty support and advice on how best to plan their finances. Some who’ve recently been made redundant, might need extra help to navigate the welfare system.

Rental histories, arrears, cash collections and cancelled direct debit data can all help to pin-point financial stress. By acting upon this type of intelligence, we can target early support and lessen the chance of homelessness.

Limited supply
Demand for housing stock was already at an all-time high before the coronavirus outbreak.  Add into the mix the early release of prisoners, the rise in domestic abuse incidents and the continuing economic uncertainty for many people and the challenge authorities are facing of balancing housing stock with a growing demand cannot be underestimated.

It is therefore critical authorities make sure their existing stock is as well maintained and efficiently managed as possible and technology can play a key part in this. This means taking a proactive approach to maintenance to reduce the possibility of void properties. Authorities can’t wait for the fabric of a building to deteriorate before acting and now the IoT is able to deliver on its long-awaited promises, this is one area where it has a lot to offer.  

Smart home integration is the way forward as it allows us to undertake pre-emptive repairs and maintenance, which means we can keep residents in their homes for longer and reduce any shortfall in property portfolios. Planning ahead to promote energy-efficient living will also help combat against fuel poverty, which makes life difficult for tenants already struggling financially.

At the sharp end
As the pandemic continues to maintain a strangle hold on the economy there is little doubt the deprivation levels will be further exacerbated for many. Some people will need more one to one support.

Digital transformation is helping to relieve some of the pressures housing staff face by streamlining back-office processes and encouraging customers to move towards online interactions. Freeing staff from routine tasks so they can take on more of an outreach role and help those with more complex needs should be seen as necessity, rather than an option going forward.

Last line of defence
To address the wider challenges now facing our society the housing sector needs to be fully digital. Whilst there is no quick fix, predictive analytics can build a far more detailed picture of residents and stock, enabling housing providers to better target support services to mitigate risk and sustain tenancies.  

We are living in unprecedented times. The pandemic and its eventual aftermath has and will continue to test our society like never before. As the country adjusts to the ‘new normal’ social housing providers will play a pivotal role in combatting homelessness, and with the right tools I believe we stand a fighting chance.

Shaun Aldis is chief executive of Wolverhampton Homes and a contributor to the Northgate Public Services white paper: A smart, safe and sustainable future. For more information download  northgateps.com/housingwhitepaper which explores the views of housing providers and thought leaders on emerging technology in housing.