Inside Housing and Aico’s Resident Safety Campaign seeks to uncover outstanding work by landlords to raise residents’ awareness of safety issues. Martyn Hague explains what ForHousing has been up to
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ForHousing was one of last year’s Resident Safety Campaign winners. Tell us about the project.
After Grenfell, existing regulations were no longer deemed fit for purpose and housing organisations across the country found themselves in a state of inertia as they awaited guidance on the best action to take.
ForHousing has 1,350 homes in 17 blocks, ranging from 10 to 20 storeys in Salford and Knowsley, and residents range from young to older people in a couple of sheltered blocks.
We wanted to act quickly to ensure all ForHousing residents were safe. Everybody has the right to feel safe in their home and we had received calls from 128 residents in those blocks wanting to know more about the safety of the buildings. Rather than waiting for official guidance, ForHousing decided to remove and replace the cladding and invest around £5.5m on installing sprinklers into the buildings. This was entirely shaped by what we were hearing from residents.
Doing the work was only part of it, though – we really wanted to engage with residents, tell them about what we were doing and listen to their views.
We ramped up communication and launched a direct dial number for residents to call, we held consultation events in each of the blocks to talk transparently about the work that was being done and reassured them about the existing fire safety arrangements because the blocks were already safe. ForHousing introduced sprinklers as an added layer of safety, we visited every resident in their home to explain what was happening and we put a specialist team of tenant liaison officers in place to exclusively provide ongoing support.
As a result of this safety campaign, what feedback did you receive from your residents?
The work on all 17 blocks was completed in 10 months by April 2019 and we surveyed the residents of the blocks to ask them how they now felt. We had a great response: 100% of tenants reported that they were happy with the fire safety information they received and 97% said they feel safe or very safe.
A ForHousing resident, who had called us after seeing the Grenfell tragedy unfold on the news, said he had lots of questions about the block, but once the sprinklers were installed he felt a lot safer because he knew if there was ever a fire they would activate and this gave him peace of mind. We also received feedback from outside the organisation – Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service wrote to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government praising the work that had been done, which was great.
We had a fire in one of the homes and because of the sprinkler activating, it saved the resident. It really showed how effective the sprinkler systems are.
How have you continued to communicate housing issues to residents this year and keep them included in decision-making?
We’ve strengthened our communication. We’re very aware of the importance of this – we have embraced it and thought about how we approach resident engagement across every aspect of our organisation.
Over the past year we’ve put together a new tenant voice strategy which was developed in partnership with residents to strengthen our relationships, including how we listen to, learn from and act on all feedback. We partly did this using data that we held but also through focus groups made up of residents and community stakeholders to work out what the strategy would look like and how the relationship could be improved so that we’re working not just alongside but with tenants.
I started working in the sector as a housing assistant and what I’ve always loved about my job is that I know I can make a difference every day. It’s a pleasure to go into work and I enjoy working with tenants and communities to improve things.
Martyn Hague is director of neighbourhood services at ForHousing, helping to build vibrant, safe and diverse communities. This includes responsibility for teams covering neighbourhood and tenancy management; community safety; property management; allocations; supported and extra care; community development; tenant voice; and caretaking and cleaning.
What plans did ForHousing have at the beginning of this year for continuing this campaign?
We’ve reviewed our structures when it comes to tenant engagement. One of our big initiatives this year was completely changing our process for complaints. It’s now a redress policy that aims to change the culture. Instead of dealing with it as a complaint, now when someone raises dissatisfaction we talk to them one-to-one to see how we can resolve it, we discuss a schedule for actions and commit to it. The resident will only have to deal with a single person until we’ve resolved the problem. We’ll agree how we’ll put things right within two days of knowing the tenant has a problem.
We’ll do things quicker and keep individuals up to date, leading to a new and improved experience.
We want to listen to ForHousing residents and understand their individual needs. This is how we want to shape our services going forward. In order to be the best landlord we can be, we need to involve, and work with, communities to create services that are person-centred and inclusive. This is one great example of that. Listening and acting on what residents say will help us to continually improve and get better together.
How did the first COVID-19 lockdown impact this?
It’s been challenging. Much of what we were doing changed overnight, but it galvanised our relationship with residents. We embarked on contacting all residents – we did around 40,000 calls. As the months have gone on, we’ve opened up our digital approach. We’ve utilised Zoom for residents – it’s more convenient than a face-to-face meeting and less intimidating. ForHousing has a tenant app that we’ve adapted because people can’t just drop into reception any more, including developing and expanding our self-serve options with a new tenant portal on our website. Now we have an appointment-based system with the frontline teams, and have launched a chatbot, Zippy, who has helped more than 500 people out of office hours.
We’re working with Amazon to create an automated repairs service so residents can track where their repairs are up to, and we’ve introduced new data-handling solutions so we are better prepared to help people.
Feedback has been great. Many residents have said they weren’t expecting us to contact them, which just shows how we are beginning to change the culture. It shows we are an organisation that residents can engage with – not just on a transactional basis to talk about repairs or rent – and we can work together and help in a range of ways. We are seeing tenants talking to us about different things now. We’ve had recent discussions about their work situations, being furloughed, etc.
How do you feel about continuing safety projects and looking after residents during this second lockdown?
We’ve been well prepared. We had a bit of an ‘advantage’ because we had Tier 3 restrictions already in place in Liverpool and Salford, so lockdown doesn’t feel hugely different. Our services have improved, and we know what we need to do and since the summer we have adapted our approach and become more agile and flexible in terms of resourcing where demand is. This is something we’ll continue into 2021 as it’s provided a much better service to residents and we want to use the feedback we receive in a constructive, positive way.
Inside Housing’s Resident Safety Campaign with Aico has been working with 12 Ambassadors to uncover outstanding examples of social landlords engaging with residents to raise awareness of safety issues. We will announce five winners from the campaign in next month’s Inside Housing.