In this case study, we’ll look at the work of Brent Council in collecting rent arrears while staying human during the pandemic.

We heard from the Head of Housing and Neighbourhoods, Emily-Rae Maxwell, who laid out the scope of social housing in the Brent area and how the rent collection process has adapted during Covid-19 and preparing for the future.

The Current State of Brent’s Social Housing

  • Responsible for 8000 council homes
  • Responsible for 4000 leaseholders
  • Approximately 1000 properties in other portfolios

Housing was managed by an ALMO up until 2017 when it transitioned back into the council.

Brent Council has a specialist team of 16 FTE Income Recovery Officers and 3 team leaders. Their collective rent roll per annum across all the different portfolios is £77 million.

The Challenges

The first and most pressing problem facing the council is that the system used to collect rent arrears data is not fit for purpose. It is unable to integrate data sets to produce the reports required.

This leaves a huge reliance on income officers to carry out manual checks and determine what the right course of action is and when it needs to be taken.

Covid-19 exacerbated this problem as communication was more difficult, and without a system in place that had readily accessible data, the job of accurately deciding which actions to take was made harder.

The second problem can also largely be put down to Covid-19. Not only were there heightened financial worries across social housing tenants, but the issue became apparent very quickly.

There was an increase of 204 accounts falling into debt, with those accounts already in debt falling further behind on payments and accumulating larger debt.

Furthermore, there was a prediction of £2 million in arrears for the Housing Revenue Account.

A System Overhaul

In response to the poor system and timing of Covid-19, Brent Council decided to launch a new system.

They had a bespoke Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system built on Microsoft Dynamics. A key difference was that it would tell them at the earliest possible point if there was going to be an issue regarding rent payment.

The performance dashboard made it easy for the officers to see arrears by ward and patch, as well as keep track of any changes on a daily basis.

There was also a large number of analytical capabilities built into the system. This allowed oversight of tenants’ ‘performance’ as well as that of their officers.

Having good data analytics also provided the opportunity to spot trends, patterns, and understand behaviours that might lead to tenants finding themselves in debt.

The new user interface

A small but helpful feature was the introduction of alerts that would notify the appropriate designated officer when action had been missed, minimising the potential impact for a tenant who might be about to fall into debt.

The initial timeframe for implementing the new system was 6 months. However, due to good communication with the developers, the system was built and ready to launch within 2 months.

The new system allowed the officers to work from home with the same productivity levels as pre-pandemic. Without which, Emily claims the team would have struggled to navigate the pandemic.

Remaining Human During the Pandemic

While the influx of data was incredibly helpful, the council also wanted to focus on remaining human during what was a difficult time for so many.

In immediate response to the pandemic, the council:

  • Ceased all enforcement letters
  • Switched a lot of communication to text messages
  • Changed all communications to better promote welfare assistance
  • Offered advice and information on where to find mental health support
  • Tracked accounts that were previously good payers who had fallen into debt
  • Collaborated across the council to identify tenants at risk of being overwhelmed by debt (including council tax, rent, other payments)
  • Established the Resident Support Fund (RSF)
  • Proactively contacted tenants facing arrears to access the RSF

The change in both tone and format of communications was well received by tenants, with official and often anxiety-inducing letters being replaced by friendlier and more informative text messages.

Being able to share the data across the council was also helpful in identifying those who could be at risk of owing serious amounts of money and being able to help those households.

Brent Council invested £1 million into the RSF and their officers worked with every individual being financially impacted by the pandemic, helping them send an application to receive money from the fund.

This not only resulted in minimal changes in tenant satisfaction, with more tenants giving a ‘neutral’ answer, but also the percentage of rent collected remained very high.

Brent Council’s performance and tenant satisfaction

Reintroducing Enforcement

During the pandemic, Brent Council did not serve notices. This was a decision made by the leader of the council to ensure nobody lost their home throughout all 3 of the lockdowns.

Coming out of the pandemic requires a concrete plan to ensure actions are carried out safely, fairly, and respectfully.

This includes making sure conversations with tenants who have struggled during this time are holistic and not just focused on the financial side.

Part of the plan is to increase cooperation and joint working between income officers and housing officers, ensuring those dealing with the tenants are fully informed on each individual situation so they can then deal with the resident appropriately.

Brent Council is also prioritising those who were bad payers prior to the pandemic and who continue to be so. Included in this bracket are those who could pay, or still can pay, and choose not to.

Woven throughout the post-pandemic plan is the new legislation in the form of the Social Housing Whitepaper and the idea of ‘Breathing Space.’

Both pieces of legislation aim to instil human values throughout the rent arrears collection process, with Breathing Space allowing those in debt to consolidate their debt.

If an individual is struggling with their mental health, there are also bespoke offers being tailored to them in order to maintain the holistic approach that is being implemented.

[1] Emily-Rae Maxwell, Head of Housing and Neighbourhoods, Brent Council. Rent Arrears and Covid-19 from a Local Council Perspective: Collecting the Rent and Staying Human

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Many people were left struggling to pay their rent during the pandemic. In this case study we’ll look at the work of Brent Council in collecting rent arrears while staying human during the pandemic.

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