Housing Associations are ready for the challenge of the Private Rented Sector

Joe Chambers, Soho Housing

Joe Chambers, Soho Housing

What is the difference between a tenant in the Private Rented Sector (PRS) and a tenant in the “affordable” sector? In the vast majority of cases only money. In many Housing Associations up to 60% of residents have less than the full housing benefit, which indicates that they have worked or do work, and does not mean that they are unwilling to find work now.

I am not joining the throng who are demeaning affordable housing tenants by making ill-conceived, uninformed comments about those who find it hard to afford to live in an increasingly expensive housing market.

What I am saying is, if the only difference between “them” and “us” is the size of the bank balance then why do we treat them so differently?

These thoughts came to me as Soho Housing was establishing the service levels for our new PRS stock in the West End of London, where private sector rents are about £450 – £750 per week, compared with £120 per week for our affordable tenants.

As we researched the service levels required we began to realise that the private tenants would expect less from their landlord than our affordable tenants. This made me think.

The affordable housing sector, encouraged by government and the regulator, over the last 20 years has created a paternalistic environment for affordable housing tenants. Affordable Housing Providers have been made to strive to provide a better and better service for, what is essentially, a budget product. More than that, Housing Associations are encouraged to resolve resident issues.

Housing Associations are encouraged to tackle anti-social behaviour, interfere in neighbour disputes, involve residents in how the company is run, paint the faces of tenants’ children at “fun-days” and generally patronise people who live in their properties. Not to mention the injustice that affordable tenants face, through the double jeopardy, when they break the law. For drug use, violence and harassment, which are all reprehensible crimes, the police and the justice system is there to prosecute the perpetrators, however if you are poor you can expect to also have your home taken away.

This approach of treating people who live in affordable housing differently leads us to a greater malaise. If you treat people like children they will behave like children. Affordable Housing Providers – even the language “Providers” gives you a clue – have been encouraging tenants to use their landlords to address all their ills.

This has reached the point where I have received complaints from residents because their neighbours will not say good morning to them or a phone call from a tenant telling me that their neighbour is looking at them in a funny way. There is an expectation that I, as the landlord, should address these issues in some way. There is no reason why affordable tenants cannot engage with the statutory services the same as any other member of the public.

If they experience noise nuisance they should approach environmental health and if they experience harassment then they should approach the police. These issues are outside of a landlord’s remit and serve to differentiate affordable housing tenants from the rest of us. This is not healthy for them and can lead to others thinking less of affordable tenants due to the impression that they cannot manage.

In terms of customer service, this relationship dynamic leads even the very best of those who work in the affordable housing sector to patronise those who live in their properties. The affordable tenants feel like the supplicant and obtain an unrealistic expectation of what can, and should be, delivered, which could lead to resentment and disappointment.

Housing Associations are well placed to provide really top class landlord services. In many cases the office and team is local to the residents they look after and even with larger Associations they usually have sophisticated delivery systems that would knock the spots off of most private sector service industries, e.g. banks.

Housing Associations are transparent, too much so in my view, and they tend to have clear processes which are not overly bureaucratic. They maintain their assets very much in the interests of their customers even, I would say, at the expense of commerciality in some cases. Where I believe the Private Rented Sector has the edge is the relationship between customer and landlord is more honest and clearly defined.

This makes the service sharper, more cost effective and expectations on both sides are clearer allowing for, but not necessarily delivering, a happier customer. If Housing Associations re-calibrated their relationship with customers then they would waste less time, money and resources on intangible outcomes like community leadership and resident empowerment. This could potentially create a high quality PRS quite significant in its scale.

The other side of that re-calibration could be the positive impact Associations should be able to have on the 5 million affordable households in the country, such as leading them to become less dependent. This would mean truly viewing our customers as equals and treating them as adults through a transactional relationship defined by the rental of a home for cash. This is the way to empower the majority of our residents, if they need empowering, and not disempowering and setting them apart because they have less money.

There are some tenants who find themselves in affordable housing, not only due to the fact that they have less money, but also because they have other issues which may make them less able to engage with statutory and landlord services. There is a strong case for the landlord having a service which assists these more vulnerable tenants.

Housing Associations are generally there to support those less able to support themselves and, in most cases, that is purely financial. But in a significant minority of cases, tenants may also need more tangible support in maintaining their tenancy. If they are only provided with a good landlord service, as received by other residents, then they would be more likely to fail and to lose their home.

Housing Associations are well placed to identify the need and deliver the regular and tailored support to fulfil the needs of those tenants.

Joe Chambers

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