Transforming social housing through innovation

9th February 2021

Neale Walsh is Director Customer Engagement – Government & Social Housing Solutions at Civica.

This article first appeared in Government News in January 2021.

Technological innovation is key to transforming the social housing sector in Australia, writes Neale Walsh.

With the Victorian government’s announcement that it will pump a massive $5.3 billion into social housing initiatives in the state, there was a collective sigh of relief for those who operate within the sector.

Following suit, the NSW government pledged $900 million of additional investment, taking the total social housing budget in the state up to $4.4 billion.

While the extra boost to funding will support economic growth through the construction of more than 12,000 new homes, social and community housing across both states has seen a significant lack of investment over the last few years. This has led to long waitlists for prospective tenants and a distinct lack of resources. Noting this, it’s not hard to see how the new capital will alleviate some of the pressure that both providers and tenants face.

However, funding alone will not be enough to address the challenges faced by social and community housing institutions in the long term. The sector has stagnated in the last few years, particularly in the realm of information technology, which has become antiquated and fallen below global standards. This is having a knock-on effect on tenants and ultimately driving up costs for providers, through duplication of efforts or even liability issues.

Practical changes to strategy

Practical changes can deliver improved benefits. This includes a shift towards a technology strategy and ethos that puts tenants at the heart of service delivery.

Such a strategy might include the use of location-based intelligence to deliver more targeted social housing programs. This is critical given that much of the housing stock out there doesn’t match the demographic for social housing tenants.

Many of the properties available are three-bedroom houses which are costly to maintain, while the majority of people that need them aren’t families. Often, they’re either single people, elderly couples, or people with one child. This mismatch has resulted in stock becoming underutilised, while many prospective tenants are left without homes. Using location-based intelligence technology, CHPs can more clearly assess the demographics of a certain area and assesses their specific needs – an approach widely used in commercial property development.

A tenant-centric strategy would also see CHPs take a proper assessment of the specific needs of their tenants. This includes placing considerable attention on centring newly-developed properties in areas where people can get access to the essential services they need. While this may be different for each individual tenant, it may include things like mental health support, alcohol or drug rehabilitation services, and specific specialists or health practitioners.

Other factors include proximity to public transport, which is especially prudent given the increasing preference on behalf of the government to build properties in regional areas, where support services can be scarce. Technology can play a key role in this regard, providing CHPs with analytics platforms to assess multiple data points and trends and manage needs effectively.

Eliminating manual processes

A reliance on manual processes has become a significant issue within the social housing space. With data scattered across various systems, unnecessary data entry and retrieval work pulls people away from more valuable work and drives up costs.

For example, many providers will have a tenancy management system that will handle the lease, an asset management system to manage the property, and another system for financial aspects such as rents payable. This overly complicated process makes for a poor tenant experience and leaves providers possibly liable for required repair work that wasn’t actioned appropriately, for example.

By employing technology that brings these systems together in a unified platform, providers will gain a 360-degree view of each individual tenancy – including everything that is going to impact that tenant – and allow employees and tenants to navigate through this information more effectively.

Lessons from the United Kingdom

As a country with a large social-housing profile, many community housing providers in the UK are bolstering their digital services and infrastructure in a way that could provide useful lessons for Australia at this time.

A common theme we’re seeing in the UK is an uptick in the use of self-service portals for tenants, which can alleviate pressure on front-line employees. Devon-based Teign Housing is one such organisation, deploying a self-service portal that allows tenants to pay rent, log repairs, view rent statements and amend personal details. This is set to drive huge cost efficiencies within the organisation in the medium-long term, while making the lives of tenants a lot easier.

We’ve also seen an uptick in the use of AI-powered chatbots, which provide a level of service to tenants in a 24/7 capacity. UK-based Havebury Housing Partnership built a chatbot known as LUIS, equipped with real-time analysis and always-on customer communication. The bot, trained with 100,000 repair descriptions and outcomes, has driven an enormous gain in repairs diagnostics.

Technology is already proving how it can drive meaningful changes to the efficiency and effectiveness social housing organisations, while having a positive impact on the lives of tenants. Australia has an unprecedented, multi-billion-dollar opportunity to make a similar step forward, by forging a similarly holistic, tenant-centric and data-focused approach to social housing.