Friday, 17 February 2012

Aint Nothing Goin on but the Rent

If you do the Twitter thing, follow Tony.Smith at @hotpixUK

If you are at one of the UK’s housing associations or groups that reviews their tenancy rents the first week of April, you may not be a fan of this time of year. Its often a chaotic time, trying to meet the 28 day notification deadline before Monday the second. Why is it so stressful and such a rush? “How hard can it be?” (as senior managers love to say...)

Well, the process does not exactly creep up on everyone by surprise, but amazingly many RSL’s do leave it quite late to start. One of the best examples I have ever seen is one large housing group who start in October. (yes you read that right, 5 months ahead!). Like model pupils they also hit the spot on time every single year.

Good planning prevents last minute rushes to redesign notification letters and allows eleventh-hour changes (when that RPI changes madly maybe) to be easily accommodated. Unless you use rolling reviews, all year round, it’s worth checking you have staff familiar with the process. As it takes best part of a year to come around, last times rent review experts might be on maternity leave or may have left that particular team. Schedule some training where there are gaps and ensure that the annual review process is well documented.

Now in this day and age, we should be expecting our housing management system to help and assist us in the whole process. Particularly for the repetitive elements, such as letter generation and email notifications etc. Your residents generally know they will face a review annually or at some other predetermined time. Your customer service centre should also be able to confirm what their new charges will be once it’s waiting to be applied, inside the Rent module.

I have encountered RSL’s that don’t use the inbuilt review functions inside their housing management system. Some of the reasons cited are:
1)      It’s not available so we do it manually
2)      It’s not flexible enough so we do it outside and employ temps to key in all the new rents
3)      We did it once and it updated all the rents wrong
4)      We have changed our notification letters but we have not changed the system to work like that
5)      We do it manually, our admin team do it in overtime

Now, it’s a fact that just about all the main systems handle rent and account review. If they don’t quite do it the way you would prefer, look into uploading modelled figures from Excel (as a CSV - Comma Separated Variable file). Many offer this facility and its especially useful for service and factoring charges, which can be pretty unique in composition.

Your best friend at review time (and other times too!) is an up to date test system. It baffles me how many RSL’s don’t have one and have not the knowledge to snapshot the live database, on demand. It’s a valuable investment to pay your supplier to have this knowledge. Then, as you have guessed by now, you can test your rent review process to destruction, before unleashing it on the live database. So goodbye to reviewing every rent to zero and needing to pay your system supplier to reverse it, as I have seen happen.

Larger RSL’s and groups can generate many thousands of letters as part of the review process. Rather than handling this volume internally, find a specialist printer or direct mail house. Then you can send a data file securely zipped with a password and in some cases reduce costs by 60% or more. The key to this is adequate planning prior, agreement in good time of formats and communication to ensure the result will meet the required standard.

I have to say it has been good to hear, that some housing associations / groups notably Orbit, have fought to reduce rent increases, nearer to 6 & 6.5% this time around, to benefit residents, already suffering more expensive food & fuel prices. This is a harder thing for local authorities to do, squeezed on all angles. It’s refreshing to hear that Newcastle, Ipswich and Cambridge have expressed their opposition to sharp rises of over 8.2%. I hope more can find the courage to publically do so. 

No romance with no finance, Gwen Guthrie called it.

(c) Tony Smith, Acutance Consulting

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