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Homes managed: 30,000
Service used: HomeHunt
Area covered: Across England
Many housing associations grumble about allocating their stock through a single choice-based letting (CBL) scheme but housing association Stonewater has to work with 140 local authorities across England.
“It is inconsistent. You could have one allocations team dealing with 50 different local authorities and 50 different arrangements,” says Sharron Gough, Stonewater’s regional director for the West.
Stonewater, which manages 30,000 homes, would like the lettings process to be the same for applicants across the country.
The association is planning to extend the use of Housing Partner’s HomeHunt property marketing product for homes not covered by choice-based letting agreements with local authorities.
“Where we are not signed up to 100% CBL arrangements, we will be advertising a proportion of our properties on HomeHunt,” she explains. “That gives us more consistency and allows anyone in any part of the country to look at our properties and bid on them.”
Stonewater has been using HomeHunt for some time but only to advertise difficult-to-let properties. It will now be using it to feature as many vacant properties as possible. The association also hopes that HomeHunt will allow it to better check if people can afford to pay the rent.
“We want to make sure we are putting people into properties who are able to sustain those tenancies. It’s more challenging than it’s ever been. There’s a whole swathe of applications, for instance, that would have been eligible for one-bedroom flats but with welfare reform, are they going to be able to pay the rent?” she asks.
“We will work with our local authority partners to meet their statutory obligations - ultimately that is housing people in housing need and we will never move away from that, but affordability is critical,” she says.
HomeHunt has other advantages over traditional CBL schemes - it will speed up relettings, she says: “We can advertise on a Monday and close on a Wednesday if we get high demand for a property. It will be more efficient. Some council CBL schemes advertise for two weeks.”
She also feels that it will help with the number of rejections: “People are looking and selecting properties. It is a choice really.”
Ms Gough compares HomeHunt to mainstream consumer websites: “It has the look and feel of Rightmove and they are extending it so people with smartphones are going to be able to use an app to look at properties.”
Rising demand, diminishing stock and welfare reforms are transforming social housing. Stonewater knows change is coming to allocations as a result and is trying to stay ahead of the curve.
“We need to have discussions about CBL. Is it working? Is it doing what it is supposed to be doing? We need to be able to let properties quickly and efficiently but also put the right people in those properties,” she says. “We need to create sustainable tenancies because at the end of the day we want to keep building new affordable housing.”
Homes managed: 4,100 social homes
Service used: HomeHunt
Area covered: Cornwall
Beyond the picture postcard version of Cornwall with its pretty villages, sandy coves and surfers, there is a grinding poverty tourists rarely see.
The county has 17 of the most deprived neighbourhoods in England and child poverty blackspots similar to inner city London.
Cornish housing association Coastline Housing is battling to help those in low-paid, often seasonal employment or dependent on diminishing benefits.
“When people think of Cornwall they usually think of the seaside and the beautiful scenery but underneath there is deprivation and social isolation,” says Kevin Brown, head of housing services at Coastline.
Housing is a big issue in the county. House prices are more than 10 times the local average wage and there are more than 18,000 people on the waiting list for social housing. Unsurprisingly Coastline, which manages 4,100 social homes, is keen to ensure that it allocates such a precious resource efficiently. It has used Cornwall Council’s traditional choice-based letting (CBL) service, Cornwall Homechoice, since 2010 but in September last year it decided to switch half of its vacant lettings to Housing Partner’s HomeHunt property marketing website.
“We were advertising all our vacancies through Cornwall Homechoice but it wasn’t working. It caused our relet times to increase because it is a pretty cumbersome process.”
Mr Brown is currently negotiating a new agreement with the council, which will cover the other half of the association’s vacant stock. “We are leaving Cornwall Homechoice at the end of this month and we are going to do our own thing,” he says.
Mr Brown says the council’s CBL scheme held up relets, taking up to 20 days to post an advert and nominate a potential tenant from a shortlist. It also mismatched tenants to properties, making some tenancies unsustainable in the long run: “Our relet times were in the region of 12 days. They went up to 25 days.”
This has changed since Coastline started using HomeHunt, which allows people to bid for properties on a Rightmove-like website rather than having to use an eight-digit code to log onto the council’s site. “Since we introduced a new system in September last year we’re down to 16 days. We’re clawing it back.”
HomeHunt allows Coastline to potentially let an empty property within days. “With HomeHunt we get a notification that someone wants to leave their current home in the morning. We can photograph it and advertise it in the afternoon. We can put a stipulation in the advert that it will only be online for 24 hours and shortlist and allocate it the next day,” says Mr Brown.
As Coastline is in charge of the whole process, it is better able to check if potential tenants can afford the rent.”We are still taking people who have nowhere else to turn, but they must demonstrate they can afford their rent,” he says.