Urgent: Housing associations must act now to design, deliver, and adapt support for their tenants before the longer term impacts of Covid-19 begin to take hold

This blog is an introduction to a mini-series on what housing associations can do in the short-term to help mitigate the longer-term impacts of Covid-19 for their most vulnerable tenants


Covid-19 has exposed a housing system struggling to cope.

The job retention scheme, government ban on tenant evictions and forbearance and the freeze on debt collection have provided temporary band-aids for a system on the brink.

Come autumn, those band-aids will be ripped off.

All the warning signs are there to indicate what is about to unfold within our economy and the impending challenges more vulnerable tenants will face in the coming months. Whilst no one can say for certain what is going to happen, there are some strong indicators of further job losses, especially in lower-skilled roles across the country, continued pressure on welfare services to meet surges in demand, and entrenched health and financial impacts of the crisis impacting lower income households the most.

This will create a knock on effect for housing associations. Rent arrears will slowly turn into higher levels of irrecoverable debt; hitting the bottom line and credit worthiness of many social landlords across the country. If social landlords can no longer borrow, development of the future supply of social housing is at further risk. The social housing business model as we have known it for the last twenty years is facing its toughest test yet.

If Covid-19 has taught us one thing, it is to read the tea leaves carefully. Have no doubt, we are currently in a surreal calm before the impending storm. Housing associations have a chance to weather the storm – but must act now to support tenants in vulnerable circumstances through the long tail of the crisis.


The case for change

As an integral pillar in civil society, housing associations play a critical role in the health, wellbeing and financial security of their tenants. When the crisis hit, the sector reacted decisively to ensure the safety of its most vulnerable tenants, despite major operational shifts to remote working. Red tape and risk-averse processes were cut away and the sector reacted largely as one to ensure the safety of all its tenants – a marked contrast to the approach taken in other parts of the housing market.

The result of the immediate response was likely complexity, uncertainty, and plenty of new learning for the housing sector. If you are a social landlord reading this, you’ve probably worked effortlessly to reach your tenants and understand what they need during the lockdown. You’ve probably made some tough decisions about how you resource the organisation. You’ve probably been considering what new operating model might be needed to support the future of your organisation. Considering the questions asked of the sector, it’s not surprising that 75% of housing associations are looking to take a new approach to service delivery.

Across the sector, people are asking the same question; in the wake of Covid, what should business as usual look like for housing associations?

Now is not the time to stop exploring this question. Maintaining an adaptive, responsive mindset will be key to the ongoing support of tenants as the economic impacts begin to bite.

What should happen next

We’ve worked with many housing associations over the past few years to consider how they can redesign services for vulnerable tenants. We’ve worked on embedding behavioural approaches to designing arrears letters. We’ve researched ‘at risk’ tenants across the country and recommended innovative customer journeys that could transform how social housing is provided. We’ve helped design emergency packages in response to universal credit and new programmes focused on increasing financial resilience of tenants at the edge of crisis.

In response to Covid-19, our experience has helped us identify three hypotheses about what should be at the bedrock of any housing programme seeking to support the financial wellbeing of their tenants:

1. Trust

There is a major disconnect between the common rhetoric of being ‘more than a landlord’ and the reported experience of tenants. Across the sector, brilliant services are in place to support tenants to build financial resilience. But too often, tenants access this support only when they’ve hit the point of financial crisis and are in deep arrears. The trust that’s needed for tenants to share financial issues with housing associations earlier is still not there. Where trusted relationships are seen, it’s often with individual support staff – isolated from the overall customer experience as a renter.

Our first 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.

2. Personalisation

Housing associations’ tenant-bases are extremely diverse. Compare a single parent with two young children and a middle-aged male with long-term health conditions. Both may have significant physical, mental and financial health challenges, but their contexts are completely different – the support they want and how they expect to engage with that support will be completely different. This will also be the case with Covid-19, different types of tenants will have their own unique experience and set of personalised needs. A “one size fits all” approach to service delivery will not meet diverse needs.

Our second hypothesis: Truly understanding and recognising tenants’ varied circumstances, and designing services that are tailored and targeted to specific tenant segments will drive increased engagement and outcomes for tenants.

3. Joined-up support

Housing associations and their tenants do not exist in a vacuum. For tenants, housing associations are just one of many actors in the system of provision offering support to tackle financial insecurity and build resilience. Tenants are intentional about who they ask for what help – often sticking within their circles of trust and those who it “makes sense” to seek support from. Tenants won’t normally expect employment support or debt advice from their landlord but would be grateful for the offer of a rent break after a job loss alongside signposting them to the available support at the right time.

Our third hypothesis: Understanding the wider system of support that’s available to, and trusted by, tenants will enable housing associations to identify opportunities to work collectively with local partners to deliver integrated support – allowing housing associations to play their most impactful role in building the financial resilience of tenants.

Our invitation to you

How can housing associations adopt the principles above to rapidly adapt between now and the Autumn?

To help answer this question, we’ll be sharing a series of blogs over the next few weeks that build on each of our three hypotheses and what we’ve learned through working in the sector. We invite you to feedback on each of these blogs, starting an open dialogue that may help us to design effective solutions to tackle the upcoming financial impacts of Covid-19 together. If you’re a housing association, we would also love to hear from you about what you are already doing or planning to do in the wake of Covid-19.

Read the next blog in the series on trust.

Adapting services at breakneck speed is demanding and unforgiving. We are here to help. Get in touch with matt.black@shiftdesign.org if you have any questions or would like to discuss how we can support your organisation over the coming months.