In many ways, the approach to communication in social housing hasn’t changed a huge amount in the last few decades. There have been some additional channels added to the arsenal of most housing providers, but the primary channels for communication have remained the same.
Letters have been the standard form of social housing communication since the very beginnings of social housing. It is by far the most straightforward – as it only requires the bare minimum of information about a tenancy. This, combined with the very scalable nature of letter-sending, has kept letters as the most used form of communication in housing today. The primary concerns with letter sending are to do with cost as well as ensuring the right person gets the right communication. Due to the very public nature of the post, anyone in a household could read communications sent through to the property – or worse still read communications meant for the previous resident. A lack of transparency is the main danger surrounding letter communications.
Phone calls are also prolific in social housing. They again do not require a huge amount of information (although more than letters) – the address of a property and the current phone number of the resident. This has some benefits and some downsides. The benefits are that they build accountability and visibility into the system. A phone call can be recorded by a housing provider, used as evidence of an agreement or proof that information has been received. Unfortunately, phone calls also require the housing provider to have an up-to-date number. This was less of a concern in previous decades when home phones were ubiquitous. With the rise of mobile phones, however, keeping accurate numbers has proved extremely difficult. Phone calls are also expensive – requiring significantly more time-per-resident than letter sending.
Text messages are the obvious solution to the issues surrounding phone calls. They allow for the same level of transparency and traceability, but with a significantly reduced cost. Text messages are magnitudes less expensive to send en-mass than phone calls and do not require the same level of staffing. In the early 2000s, there was a genuine feeling that text messaging might be the way of the future for housing providers. Unfortunately, they suffer the same issues as phone calls – where accurate and up-to-date phone numbers are required to use this communication channel. This can be an issue at a portfolio level as important communications cannot be missed for even the smallest percentage of residents.
Another classic form of communication – simply visiting a property to deliver information in person. This solves many of the problems above – as accurate phone numbers are not required and the housing provider has the highest level of visibility on deliverability and engagement. This option, unfortunately, is also the most expensive. It takes time to have a resident liaison officer visit properties – and missed appointments begin to increase the costs even further. This is not a viable option for delivering any portfolio-wide information.
A newer addition to the arsenal of housing providers, social media has become a standard communication channel over the last few years. Nearly every housing provider is now on one form of social media or another – and it has shown to have a significant impact on resident engagement. Social media does not require housing providers to know the information of a resident up-front and provides a scalable one-to-one communication platform. Unfortunately, it lacks two things. It is significantly impacted by digital inclusion (those that are most vulnerable and might need the most help are likely to feel incapable of asking for it over social media), and it can be extremely public. Every housing provider has experiences of disgruntled residents utilising every public post to chastise the organisation for their lack of action over a particular issue.
The newest form of technology to arrive in social housing is the in-home IoT device. Utilising an in-home device to communicate with residents overcomes a significant number of the issues presented by other communication channels. It is located physically in the property – so there is no concern about ensuring the message arrives at the appropriate location. It is a digital communication platform – so visibility and traceability are built right into it through the logging of send, open and action times. It also relies on the internet, rather than phone lines or postal services. The big drawback for in-home devices is that they have to be installed first before communication can begin. Letters can be done to every property – but an in-home message can only be sent to properties with the technology to receive them.