Housing associations: act now to build trust with your tenants before the longer-term impacts of Covid-19 take hold

This is the second blog in our mini-series that explores the role that trust and relationship-building across the entire tenant journey can play to encourage social housing tenants to reach out for support before a crisis point.


What we believe

In our first blog, we made the case that increased tenant trust, service personalisation, and better integrated support with local partners were key for housing associations to play their best role in supporting tenants through the long-tail of the Covid-19 pandemic. This blog explores how increased tenant trust can help tenants access this support before they’ve hit the point of financial crisis and are in deep arrears. We argue that the trust needed for tenants to share financial issues with housing associations earlier is often lacking. In our experience, where trusted relationships are found, it’s often with individual support staff and isolated from the overall customer experience as a renter.

Our hypothesis: Designing intentional moments of relationship and trust-building into a tenant’s end-to-end experience – from the moment they are offered a home and move in through to the moment Covid-related challenges bite – will increase tenants’ engagement in support services before they reach a crisis point.

Trust is the greatest enabler of crisis prevention and the best cost saver there is. The housing associations that invest now will save the most in the long run.

It may sound simple but trust takes time to develop, and only a moment for it to break down. Trust will encourage a tenant to proactively get in touch about their financial issues when they happen, to be honest about realistic repayment plans that they can commit to, and to access community investment support when offered.


Why trust matters

One thing Covid-19 has brought to the fore is that our trust of people, organisations, and institutions is a key driver of who we engage with during a crisis. Our greatest indicator of the importance of trust since lockdown was imposed has been the rise of Mutual Aid Groups, who, by identifying with the local community and providing targeted and responsive support, were considered to have more impact than government-backed schemes in helping their communities through the crisis. The key reason this was possible? High levels of trust they built with both their supporters and those most vulnerable to Covid-19 across the community.

A growing body of evidence suggests developing trust increases organisational performance, allows organisations to respond more effectively in a crisis, and encourages organisations to be more authentic. Even before lockdown, the Money Advice and Pension Service had consistently advocated for trust as a key pillar to increasing customer access and engagement to debt, welfare, and employment advice.

But it’s easy for housing associations to unintentionally erode trust with their tenants, largely due to operating models and fragmented processes.

For example, automating communication around arrears and eviction warnings can lead to disengagement with financial support services offered by community investment teams.

This is often a result of the tenant experience being built in functional silos around the needs of the organisation rather than the needs of the tenant. We’ve heard of countless tenants whose first interaction with their housing association was getting their keys and the second was an arrears letter. If no relationship has been built in between, how can an offer of financial support be trusted by the same organisation threatening tenants with eviction?


Warning signs of eroding trust

Trust can be a difficult thing to measure. It’s hard to define, it’s hard to quantify, and if you don’t have trust with your customers, it’s often hard to pinpoint why. There are indicators that can help you identify if tenant trust within your housing association is low. Since the lockdown, have you had:

  • A lower uptake of community support services than expected?
  • Stagnant referral acceptance rates into your community investment teams?
  • Increases in arrears but limited engagement with attempts to contact your tenants?

You are likely experiencing these outcomes in part due to limited trust among your tenant base.

Improved benchmarking and survey data can help housing associations identify how much trust they have with their tenants. Housemark’s recently updated STAR framework features 11 optional questions that can help social landlords identify levels of resident trust, including questions about service expectations, tenant needs, openness and transparency, demonstrating care, respect, and approachability. However, according to recent data from Housemark, only 19% of social landlords are using trust as an indicator for their performance with tenants in customer feedback surveys.

Measuring trust is vital to identify where within the tenant journey there are tensions in their relationship with housing associations. Data can help provide key understanding of why trust might be missing, and an opportunity to publicly demonstrate to tenants how you plan to address this, which can help rebuild credibility and trust. However, it can take time to implement trust indicators into existing tenant surveys, and waiting on survey results may not always be useful when responding to crisis situations. As a result, there are a number of quick, lightweight, and immediate adaptations housing associations can make that will help to build trust with tenants over the coming months.


What you can do

Now is the time to design intentional moments of relationship and trust-building into your tenants’ experience. Here are three practical steps you can take now to increase your tenants’ trust in you and the support you offer relating to the financial impacts of Covid-19:

1. Map out what your tenants will likely experience between now and next March in relation to Covid-19

What are the main events that are likely to occur and when? Sketch it out like a calendar of events. Think about the end of the eviction ban, the job retention scheme, and the creditor freezes as your jumping off point. Identify who and when tenants are most likely to be impacted by pandemic-related events within your housing stock.

2. At each event, think about what support you can offer to ease the financial shock or sense of distress for your tenants in response to these events

Sense check that your offers of support are building trust and relationships, not eroding them. It’s important to bring a cross-functional team together around this activity as well as tenants themselves, if possible. Based on the support you offer, what are the current complaints or pain points for tenants? What interactions might be eroding trust? What more could you do to build trust? Think about how you could redesign the way you offer support before, during, and after tenant interactions across all your services to provide consistent and empathetic messaging.

3. Test out adaptations to current or new offers of support with trust and relationship building as the key intent

Do this fast, testing offers with small groups of tenants to find out what works. Use lightweight techniques like swapping automated letters for phone calls or text messages from real team members when a tenant falls into arrears. Use A/B testing to identify how different messages and channels perform with different tenant groups. Identify tenant groups who you have the lease engagement with and who are at highest risk financially and trial different channels like phone calls, texts, door knocks until you find the one that works. Check out how we helped One Manchester rapidly test a UC Survival Pack for inspiration.


Our invitation to you

Have you had success in building trust within your housing association? How are you planning to maintain that trust during the challenging months ahead? We would love to hear from you.

Shift has in-depth experience in mapping user journeys and testing engagement strategies to maximise support for housing associations’ tenants. If your are looking to adapt in the face of Covid-19 and would like more hands-on support, we are here to help.

Get in touch with Matt on matt.black@shiftdesign.org with your experiences and questions, or to discuss how we can work together over the coming months.