Four Forces in a Social Housing Organisation

Over the last decade I’ve worked in a training and consultancy capacity with social housing organisations all over the UK.

Reflecting on the work I’ve been engaged with at different levels and in different parts of these organisations, I’ve identified four critical forces at play which, when in harmony with each other, help the organisation to be effective and sustainable. When in conflict with each other, these forces create discord, difficulty and impact directly on the front line of tenant care, as well as creating problems “back at base” as well.

Force 1 is The Force for Affordable Rents
Force 2 is The Force for Reasonable Surplus
Force 3 is The Force for Safe and Decent Housing
Force 4 is The Force for Innovation and Change

A sustainable and effective social housing organisation delivers safe and decent housing, with affordable rents, whilst creating a surplus that allows sustainable investment, innovates and changes in relation to its dynamic environment.

Affordable rents are only achievable is the organisation manages its costs effectively and achieves economies of scale through appropriate growth.

A reasonable surplus is only achieved if costs are balanced consciously with revenues. The organisation has to be lean in ways that do not compromise its core values as providers of social housing

Safe and Decent Housing is achieved when property is managed sensitively, with sustainable maintenance and the development of responsible communities

Innovation and change requires a culture of openness, challenge of the status quo, a climate of creativity and learning and a willingness to embrace new approaches and technological opportunities.

Force 1 The Force for Affordable Rents

Social housing has, over the last two decades, increasingly felt the influence of the “corporation”. Commercialisation in social housing has manifesting in several areas. One has been the creation of a percentage of market rate commercial property offerings as portion of a total new build. This ten percent of flats and houses are used partly to raise revenue for the affordable element. This has moved many social housing organisations into a more commercial form of delivery akin to private housing. Service level agreements then become tiered in terms of what is offered to different tenants and customers. This development has jarred with some working in social housing who see the whole purpose of social housing as being a response to the ethics and costs of the private sector. New ideologies blend with more traditional ones and soon the forces for corporate commercialism vie with the forces of social housing ideology and provision.

The justification of commercial builds is that they raise revenues that support the affordable element. But managing the dynamics here is not always easy and conflict can arise.

At the heart of the mission of social housing is affordable rents. This has also sparked new debates about what affordable means and how means is defined in the first place. As many families have downshifted through the recession, new demographics are coming into play along with new tenant expectations.

The force for affordable rents pressurises social housing organisations to be lean, smart with resources whilst maintaining their core beliefs and values.

Force 2 The Force for Reasonable Surplus

Well led and managed social housing organisations need to create surpluses that allow them to invest in the future – new housing stock as well as new systems and infrastructure to deliver best service. As commercialism has come more into play, surplus becomes synonymous with profit and tenants start to be called “customers”. Social housing is seen as a kind of benevolently intentioned commercial enterprise with profit becoming a strongly prioritised goal. The danger here is that profit as a term carries the baggage of history and investment appraisal then becomes more focused on what will affect the “bottom line”. Social and less tangible priorities fall below those decisions that are measurable in terms of Key Performance Indicators and profit targets. The organisation can become unhinged from its core values and mission.

Social housing organisations that take a more subtle, and grown up approach to resources focus more on creating sustainable surpluses that are woven consciously into the future plans and priorities of the organisation. Surpluses fund investment and investment is determined from real time feedback from the communities the organisation is there to serve. Growth, innovation, infrastructure investment, new technology, training – all are part of a longer term, emerging picture where surplus is seen as vital to ensuring longer term effectiveness is realised.

Force 3 The Force for Safe and Decent Housing

At the core of social housing are individuals and families wanting to be housed safely and decently. There are costs associated with this and a constant and skilled dialogue between the organisation and its stakeholders has to inform the definitions of safe and decent housing. Some of this will come from wider comparison and benchmarking, some from direct dialogue with tenants themselves. The social housing organisation that succeeds here practises open dialogue and has a clear idea of its minimum standards, a consistent and skilled approach to quality management, and a practical vision for its housing portfolio. Its brand easily articulates its core values that capture what “safe” and “decent” mean. This is never set in stone for too long – with regular discussion and dialogue as well as keeping in touch with wider developments in the sector – leading edge building design, security products and services, models for delivering maintenance as well as approaches to tenant care and communication.

Force 4 The Force for Innovation and Change

The rise of social media and mobile communications are transforming he way some social housing organisations are engaging with their tenants, their suppliers and contractors, and also internally. Some have been quicker to react than others. The call centre that frustrates its tenants sits alongside mobile phone applications that confirm appointments quickly and efficiently.

Innovation in building design, building management, sustainable technology and energy efficiency also come into play. Social housing organisations have to make wise and smart choices about new technology and innovation. A culture of innovation needs to be led from the top and embedded in the culture. Tenant feedback must not be met defensively but be seen as an opportunity for learning and innovation. Regularly updating of new opportunities from the wider sector and beyond need to be accessed and fed into decision making and strategy planning.

Social housing organisations can no longer be slow and reluctant to react. Leading edge is becoming a tenant expectation.

So…

So, how is your organisation responding to these four forces? Are you stronger in some areas than others? Is it time to get off site with your leadership team and take an honest and challenging look at how your organisation needs to change and develop to ensure that the four forces are at the heart of what you do?

Many social housing organisations are running behind in terms of meeting the challenges posed by these critical forces. Effort needs to come from the top, but dialogue needs to take place with all stakeholders and committed staff.

The time is now…

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About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

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