With over 6 weeks of lockdown complete and weeks more uncertainty likely to follow, housing organisations are having to reinvent the ways they manage tenant relationships to deliver the best outcomes for both their business and the individuals whose lives have been affected.
At a recent MRI Round Table event, we discussed the impact of COVID-19 with representatives from 18 housing organisations across the UK. Here’s what they told us about how tenant relationships have changed since the onset of the crisis:
Many tenants are experiencing difficulties for the first time
COVID-19 has affected people in all walks of life, whether through sickness or loss of income. This means that tenants who were previously financially stable with up-to-date accounts could be falling into arrears for the first time.
This could be a frightening experience, with tenants feeling embarrassment or shame and finding themselves unsure of how to ask for help. Tenants who previously held steady employment might also find themselves navigating the UK benefits system for the first time, with limited knowledge of what help is available or how to go about claiming it.
For housing organisations, this means dealing with a group of tenants who they may never have spoken to before, and supporting them through unfamiliar processes to apply for the help they need.
Older and vulnerable tenants may be suffering
For many older or more vulnerable tenants, the lockdown has already been going on for much longer than six weeks, since the government recommended that older people and those with health problems which made them susceptible to COVID-19 shield themselves entirely.
The requirements for social distancing could mean that isolated tenants like these have lost their previous lifelines, whether that’s a church, community organisation or just regular catch-ups with neighbours or relatives.
With loneliness already a problem amongst older or more vulnerable tenants, this could quickly lead to mental health or other difficulties, affecting tenants’ wellbeing significantly. In extreme cases, some tenants who are shielding could be struggling to arrange deliveries of food or medicines, requiring urgent support to ensure their safety. As a result, housing associations are reaching out to vulnerable tenants directly to check they’re coping well, and helping them to access additional support where required.
Solutions aren’t always clear
With the UK government scrambling to put entirely new systems in place for furloughed or self-employed workers, tenants face a long wait before promised support starts to arrive, with others forced to navigate longer-than-average delays for Universal Credit as an unprecedented number of applications takes its toll.
This could leave many tenants facing an acute shortage of funds, affecting their ability to pay rent in the short term, but also their confidence in the longer term. With so much uncertainty, it’s vital that housing organisations handle arrears issues sensitively, and work constructively with tenants to help them put plans in place.
Building strong relationships with tenants now not only helps them make the right financial decisions in the short term, but improves the chances of arrears being cleared quickly when support payments do arrive.
Myths and misunderstandings are common
At MRI, customers have told us that tenants don’t always understand the government’s announcements around financial support for COVID-19, and that this can lead to misinformation becoming rife.
For example, tenants in some areas have cancelled their direct debits after hearing news about the government’s proposals for mortgage holidays, incorrectly believing that their rent would be waived for three months.
For housing associations, it’s obviously important to correct these misunderstandings when they happen, but also to support tenants to ensure they have access to accurate information and advice so that they can make the right decisions for themselves and their families.
How are housing associations responding?
With so many changes, housing associations are adapting their communications to suit the new types of problems they’re facing. In particular, our Round Table participants identified the following as priority areas:
Increasing proactive communications
Rather than waiting for tenants to get in touch, many social housing organisations are contacting tenants directly.
While targeted communications are preferred for those considered at risk of falling into arrears, some of the organisations we spoke to are also sending out mass communications via email or text message, finding that this is an effective way of clearing up misconceptions, reassuring tenants, and those who do need help to reach out.
Changing communication style and tone
The participants at our Round Table had all suspended arrears enforcement activity, as a result of the government limitations on new evictions during the lockdown. In addition to this, many others had changed the tone of voice of their arrears letters to acknowledge that tenants are likely to have been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, and to provide more targeted support where appropriate.
From enforcing to sustaining tenancies
With no immediate end to the lockdown in sight, and the likelihood of severe disruption in the months to follow, our Round Table members frequently referenced a change of approach in their arrears management processes, with a focus on sustaining relationships with tenants and supporting tenants in accessing the right support. In doing so, our participants all hoped to maximise the chances that arrears could be resolved quickly once the initial phases of the lockdown are over, even if an immediate resolution is not currently possible.
Sustain relationships with MRI Housing Management
MRI’s suite of housing management tools gives your organisation everything they need to effectively manage relationships and sustain tenancies. With cloud-based interfaces accessible on any device and a range of powerful case management features, MRI Income Analytics helps you deliver proactive support to tenants when they need it most. To find out more about our future round table sessions and how to take part, please contact us.