Social housing is in crisis. There are now more than 1.8 million households waiting for a social home according to Shelter, and landlords are struggling to cope with the needs of residents as budgets dwindle and resources stretch.
Technology offers opportunities to alleviate the sector's ills, but there are barriers to overcome before they can be implemented.
Housing sector solutions agency HACT teamed up with tech trade association techUK in its central London headquarters this week to explain their hopes and concerns about how technology can support social housing and reveal a strategy for change to guide the sector to a higher tech future.
Current failings in social housing
HACT released a manifesto for change in December 2016 titled "Is housing really ready to go digital?" The sector will be unable to answer the question in the affirmative until a number of issues are resolved, which begin with reaching a consensus on what going digital actually means.
"It really is not actually making anything other than reinforcing the existing models," says director of HACT Digital Francis Hipple, who’s been working in social housing for more than 30 years.
"It's not been challenging them and really reshaping ways of doing business and ways of working. In fact, it's pretty much as it was in 1972."
Tenants may have kept up with wider technological changes, but the housing associations that support them have not. Hipple wants more of them to take advantage of tech trends such as big data.
"I know one housing trust actually gets weather data, so if there's going to be a cold snap they will contact particular elderly tenants and say to them it's going to be cold, is your boiler working and actually try to be a little bit proactive," she says.
"It hasn't been disruptive, technology so far. It's been reinforcing existing models, making them a bit slicker, making them a bit prettier, but it hasn't completely disrupted the way of actually providing and managing housing in this country, and it has got the potential to be able to do that."
HACT’s report identifies a lack of competition and a lack of innovation. A small market of cash-strapped housing suppliers has stifled radical thinking, and Hipple notes that only one system that's currently live was designed from the ground-up in this century.
Uninformed communication creates an endless circle of discussions between suppliers unsure of need and housing unclear about available solutions. This lack of understanding continues at the board level.
"Most board members have traditionally been retired accountants, retired people that used to be in housing associations, and there are very few really technically competent people in terms of tech on boards," says Hipple.
They compensate for their lack of technical acumen with an over-reliance on external consultants, whose reports and programmes are rarely implemented effectively due to the boards’ insufficient funding and understanding.
Plans for digital changes
HACT hopes to act as a dating agency to engineer discussions and attract technical talent to housing association boards. It wants to make technology an integral part of everything done in the sector, which can only be achieved with a major improvement to data quality.
"Housing associations have horrible data," says Hipple. "They do not maintain it; they do not look back to it. There is no data ownership within an organisation, so it may be collected by some of them but it is never maintained.
"The governance of information is appalling. There is no information governance in most housing associations, and when the new data protection act comes in next year I think there are going to be some nasty shocks for people there."
Initiatives implemented by HACT include UK Housing’s Digital on Board programme to recruit new digital leaders, and a Digital Maturity Audit service to assess and develop the digital capacities of housing provider businesses that will be launched in the coming months.
HACT is also making the long-discussed shared data standard for housing a reality, and has created the HACT Launchpad to bring innovative tech companies and housing associations together to develop new technological solutions.
Many housing innovations are already available, and a number were exhibited on the day. They included EkkoSense's web-based platform for monitoring solar and wind power and Kemuri's smart power sockets, which monitor the movements and temperatures of elderly residents through household devices.
Cultural barriers and financial limitations mean progress will be arduous, but HACT remains confident that the potential is there to digitally transform social housing.