Being from Canada and having only a vague idea what a housing association was, I was nervous when I learned I would be working in one. It was a slight comfort to learn that I knew roughly as much about them as most British people as it turns out the social housing sector is truly a mystery to many. If you’re a new Charityworks trainee working in a housing association, have no fear: there is a lot to learn, but you’ll learn fast.
My work experience prior to Charityworks was mainly with small advocacy-focused non-profits, and when I began my role as Customer Champion at Islington & Shoreditch Housing Association (ISHA) I felt very unqualified. My role is primarily about finding ways to get feedback from residents and using that feedback to improve services – in practical terms that includes project management, resident consultation, event planning, customer insight, and more. I was way out of my depth but, having been thrown in the deep end, I was forced to adjust quickly and felt confident in my role before long.
The more I learned about the housing sector and my place in it, the more I realised that I was coming in at a strange and interesting time. You’ll undoubtedly know there is a housing crisis in the UK – and if you’ve just moved for your placement, you probably have first-hand experience of it. But government policies such as a 1% rent cut each year over four years haven’t just hindered development of new affordable housing. The resulting budget pressures have also hindered association’s abilities to listen to their residents and improve services: many housing associations have either shrunk or cut their resident involvement teams to focus more on “core” services.
Following the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, we learned that residents had raised concerns over the building’s safety to their landlord but were effectively ignored. The consequences of ignoring resident feedback are not usually this horrific, but not heeding residents’ concerns is always a mistake. There is a moral argument to be made for engaging service-users, but there is also an efficiency argument that many organisations find more compelling. Reports from housing associations like AmicusHorizon have quantified the business benefits of involving residents, finding that the resource savings achieved throughout resident involvement outweigh the costs of involvement activities. In addition, focusing on resident involvement can lead to higher levels of resident satisfaction, more trust in the housing association and overall better services.
As a result, despite being faced with budget cuts ISHA has increased its budget for resident involvement and insight. This has given me the opportunity to diversify and improve methods of engaging residents, and as a result we now have a much better idea what our residents want. The real challenge, however, is putting this feedback to good use. It is easy to fall into the trap of listening to feedback and thinking the job is done, but if no action is taken this is a waste of staff and residents’ time. I won’t claim I’ve figured out the best way to do go about this. The fact is that service improvement means exposing staff to two things most humans hate: change and additional work. It will always be a challenge, but if you convince colleagues of the benefits of heeding resident feedback you’ll have a fighting chance of making an impact.
These lessons are not only relevant for those in resident involvement roles – the impetus is on all housing association staff to ensure resident feedback informs everything they do. Moving outside the housing sector, the same principles can be applied to any kind of service-user involvement.
During my time at ISHA I have started the process of improving these relationships and keeping lines of communication open, and I am staying on in this role post-Charityworks to continue this effort. Over the past year I have learned a lot about the challenges but also opportunities of working in the housing sector: while change can be difficult and slow, it can also have clear, tangible positive effects on people’s homes and their lives. If you focus on these positive outcomes, I’m sure you will find your role in a housing association interesting, dynamic and rewarding.
Interested in being a Charityworks trainee? Find out more information by visiting www.charity-works.co.uk/be-a-trainee
Are you a housing association or charity interested in hosting a Charityworks trainee? Email Craig (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information.