Losing our hearts?

This week I’m attending the National Housing Federation annual conference in Birmingham, mainly to find out more about their election campaign plans as I’m just starting my own project on this topic in my own organisation.

For those of you that know my day job involes managing properties on behalf of private landlords, you won’t be surprised to hear that yesterday I attended the ‘So you want to become a private lanlord’ session, featuring Pete McCormack of Derwent Living, Ian Winslet of Suffolk Housing and others from Crisis, Arc4 and Orbit.

Whilst I was expecting to learn more about how others in the housing sector are diversifying into the private rented sector, I was actually a little shocked by what I heard, which I wasn’t expecting.

At the end of the session I was sadly left with the feeling that some have lost their social heart in the excitement of diversifying. I totally agreed with Pete and Ian that a commercial approach has to be adopted and that includes getting the right staff with the right skills and even the right salary, incentives and benefits package, but when they talk of completely dissassociating these diversified activites from the housing association brand, staff and values, I have to disagree.

My personal experience and opinion (and not that of my employer, just in case that isn’t clear :) ) is that landlords and tenants are fed up with the high street letting agent offer and want something different, so providing more of the same is a missed opportunity by a sector that has the skill, the will and the values to do something to improve the private rented sector for everyone concerned.

I disagree that you should automatically look to recruit from the private sector on the same terms; there are some in the sector that are up to the commercial challenge if you give them a chance (I’m immensley proud I was given this opportunity) and where you do externally recruit those with lettings agency experience, an opportunity to work somewhere with ethical values and less pressure to meet sales targets can outweigh any financial reward packages (just asking my colleague that worked previously at a letting agent for 5 years).

I also disagree that you need to hide the fact a housing association is behind your letting agent or market rent/sale portfolio, as I said earlier, some are looking for something different to the usual letting agent offer, others respect what we stand for and for some the high quality products, service and fees (or lack of them!) do the talking. By promoting the connection to a housing association, this will help the public’s awareness, understanding and perception of us, which I’m sure most will agree is greatly needed.

My finally gripe, is that market rent customers should recive a different level of customer service to social rent customers, we should provide excellent, slick, tailored services to all our customers.

I feel very strongly that there is a role for housing associations to diversify into the private rented sector but to do something different that improves it for all concerned, that’s why you’ll always hear me disagreeing with fees, credit checking, 6 month ASTs, churning, putting profits before people, anything but excellent customer service for everyone, etc. I just hope I’m not the only one keeping my heart.