25 September 2020 | Comment | Article by Mererid McDaid

COVID-19 & Housing Series #2: Building better relationships with tenants

If anyone thought that being a board member of a housing association would be an easy ride, being a board member during a pandemic will have put to rest any such thoughts.

The last few months have been the time for board members to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in; supporting their management team, putting in the time to prepare for and attend those additional board meetings, using their skills, expertise and good judgement to make swift decisions.  

As the immediate crisis has been mitigated, boards will be looking back to see what lessons can be learnt to ensure that they are in a strong position in the event of further restrictions being imposed as well as looking at the longer-term implications.

There will be a few questions asked in respect of the board’s and the management team’s own responses to the crisis. However, one area of particular focus high on the agenda of many boards will be how tenants’ needs were met and whether, conversely, there are some positive outcomes which have come out of the crisis.

Boards will be acutely aware that many tenants would have been most affected by the pandemic either through the illness itself or the effects of the lockdown measures on work and health. The sector’s focus throughout the immediate response phase of the pandemic has been on the safety, lives and wellbeing of tenants.

Many housing associations quickly redeployed staff to ensure that it continued to connect with tenants, often through phone calls or by digital engagement - as well as delivering direct support such as food or medication to those most vulnerable. This provided an unexpected opportunity to get to know their tenants much better, understand their needs and priorities and build good relationships with them in a way that may have not been possible pre-lockdown.

So, what type of questions should board members be asking themselves, and of their management team, when considering how their key stakeholder, tenants, fared from their organisation’s response?

These are some questions which could arise as part of any ‘lessons learnt’ exercise the board may undertake:

  • Did tenants feel sufficiently supported during lockdown?
  • What could the organisation have done better for its tenants?
  • What did other organisations do well, what lessons could be learnt from them?
  • Did the communication plan work, did tenants feel that their landlord kept them informed?
  • Could any good practices developed during lockdown be incorporated into the ‘new’ normal service delivery?

For example:

  • Could service delivery be improved to avoid duplication of effort, be more focused and efficient?
  • Could services be streamlined?
  • Have there been any gaps or shortcomings in service delivery identified and if so, how can this be improved?

Having gained a better understanding of their tenants, boards may also be asking what will be done with this new information.

  • For example, are there new or overriding priority areas or opportunities identified?
  • Could this information be used to inform the association’s strategic direction?
  • If so, will tenants be involved in influencing that strategy?

However, the board should be mindful that where tenants’ personal data will be used, it should be confident that this newly collected data is being used in line with data protection legislation. This may be the perfect opportunity to review the organisation’s privacy policy and data protection procedures as well as the record of processing to ensure compliance. In this current climate, transparency and trust matter now more than ever.

Finally, boards will wish to ensure that good governance has been not neglected because of the pandemic.

It is still imperative to have good decision-making processes and procedures; how decisions are made and the way that decisions are implemented will have a profound implication on the long-term plan of the association.

It is important that boards are confident in their decision-making and focus on the purpose and objectives of the board’s association to be able to lead their organisation through the recovery phase of the pandemic. Boards may therefore wish to review their schemes of delegation, committee structure, reporting procedures or rules generally to ensure that they are fit for purpose.

If you would like to discuss any aspect of planning for successful collaborations, including commercial or governance issues arising, please do not hesitate to contact us. 

We also have a dedicated support page for organisations needing legal advice in relation to the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic in the public, social housing and third sectors.

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Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.

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