Collecting rent can be hard at the best of times. However, the state of the economy, welfare reform and budget cuts are currently making it even more of a challenge. There's pressure to do more for less in terms of time, money and personal effort. Also dealing with vulnerable, poor, excluded people can be wearing on housing officers as can dealing with people who don't want to pay. A rent arrears call or visit often uncovers vulnerabilities or other household issues and a rent officer can start to feel like an untrained social worker.
Talking about money with tenants is often sensitive and conversations can be difficult. However, the work really matters. We want to help people to have successful tenancies and not end up on the streets.
So, how do we help officers to build resilience and 'bounce-back-ability'? (Have we just invented a phrase!) Let's look at three areas:
In his book 'Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us', the business thinker, Daniel Pink, quotes recent research that demonstrates just how important a sense of purpose is to people's sense of motivation and satisfaction at work today. What is the purpose of a housing officer? Is it just to collect rent or could it be more than that? Could it concern helping tenants to enjoy both good housing and good homes?
What can we learn from history here? Reading the Wikipedia entry for social housing pioneer Octavia Hill is enlightening. In 1864, Octavia persuaded the art critic and philanthropist John Ruskin to purchase three houses in Paradise Place, London. He gave them to Octavia to manage. The aim was to make "lives noble, homes happy and family life good" in one of the most notorious London slums commonly known as "Little Hell". For over a century it has been common to be suspicious of Victorian attitudes towards the poor and destitute and in particular the Victorian notion of the 'deserving and undeserving poor'. However, Octavia Hill's pioneering approach to social housing warrants a closer look. Are there insights for those of us concerned with social housing today, in spite of the lapse of time?
Hill's management system was based on closely managing not only the buildings but also the tenants. She insisted, "You cannot deal with the people and their houses separately." She maintained close personal contact with all her tenants, and was strongly opposed to impersonal bureaucratic organisations and to governmental intervention in housing. Her determination, personality and skill transformed poverty-stricken houses in three London streets: Paradise Place, Freshwater Place and Barrett's Court, into tolerably harmonious communities. Communal facilities such as meeting halls, savings clubs and drama productions were established, enhancing the lives of tenants.
I wondered what values drove Octavia's management system. From what I have read about her, I have inferred that she believed in an unwritten contract between landlord and tenant that I summarise as follows. Please note these are my words not hers:
Tenants have the right to expect decent housing and landlords have the duty to provide it. In exchange, landlords have the right to expect decent behaviour and tenants have the duty to provide it.
Octavia did not tolerate rent arrears and bad debts were minimal. As she said, "Extreme punctuality, and diligence in collecting rents, and a strict determination that they shall be paid regularly, have accomplished this." However, payment of rent was not Octavia's only concern. She was also concerned that her tenants were either seeking or maintaining employment, looking after their dependents, not indulging in anti-social behaviour like drunkenness or making too much noise, and not getting involved in criminal activity.
For example, despite being up to date with his rent, one tenant was surprised to receive Notice to Quit, because he would not send his children to school and had overcrowded his rooms. Octavia's response to his complaint that he didn't owe any rent was that it was not the only thing she insisted upon. In her view, she could not allow anything so wrong as the neglect of children and overcrowding to continue where she had the power to prevent it.
And there lies the rub. Do Housing Officers today have the power to prevent antisocial behaviour? In today's less hierarchical, less deferential world than the Victorian one, holding a responsible job title does not give us power. Today, what gives us power is our ability to influence. And what enables us to influence? I think there are three things:
Let's look at our ability to assert our case in a calm, consistent, persistent and non-confrontational manner. What can we learn from Octavia?
She encouraged personal responsibility both in tenants and colleagues. She insisted on dealing with arrears promptly; she appointed reliable caretakers; she took up references on prospective tenants, and visited them in their homes; she paid careful attention to allocations and the placing of tenants, with regard to size of families and the size and location of the accommodation to be offered; and she made no rules that could not be properly enforced. In addition, Octavia and her colleagues promoted tenants' associations, after-work or school clubs and societies for adults or children.
What about Octavia's ability to empathise with others and acknowledge their concerns? On this subject it is difficult to find reliable evidence though anecdotes suggest she could be a pretty tough cookie to meet in person! What we do know from modern psychology and neuroscience is that if we want to influence a change in another person's thinking and behaviour we need to build a relationship and trust with them. It often takes effort and skill and can be hugely rewarding. Why might it take effort and skill? Because when people have developed bad habits they often don't break and replace those habits easily - like not paying rent on time, drunkenness, drug-taking, anti-social behaviour towards family or neighbours etc.
The skills of building relationships and trust are skills that anyone and everyone can develop. They are not the preserve of specialists like social workers, psychologists, medics or any other professional workers. In my experience of 12 years in leadership and team development and 30 years in business, the greatest barrier to being influential with another person is when we hold the assumption 'I can not influence this person'. Where people hold this assumption they often say it is a conclusion based on past behaviour. I don't doubt for a second that it feels that way. But here's a different conclusion based on the same information, 'I have not yet found a way to influence this person on this subject in the way that I want.' Such an assumption allows the possibility that I can find a way forward with this person. If I believe it's possible I will keep putting in the effort until I succeed.
Of course, we often need help with developing skills and in this respect housing officers are no different from anyone else. From my experience of working with clients in the housing sector, I can say that when we help housing officers to consider the following questions in training courses or through one-to-one coaching, they often achieve a mind or attitudinal shift in the process.
In her own words
I will leave the last words to Octavia Hill herself and encourage you, in particular, to ponder on the extraordinary words of the last paragraph.
About four years ago I was put in possession of three houses in one of the worst courts in Marylebone. Six other houses were bought subsequently. All were crowded with inmates. The first thing to be done was to put them in decent tenantable order. The set last purchased was a row of cottages facing a bit of desolate ground, occupied with wretched, dilapidated cow-sheds, manure heaps, old timber, and rubbish of every description. The houses were in a most deplorable condition - the plaster was dropping from the walls; on one staircase a pail was placed to catch the rain that fell through the roof. All the staircases were perfectly dark; the banisters gone, having been burnt as firewood by tenants. The grates, with large holes in them, were falling forward into the rooms.
The wash-house, full of lumber belonging to the landlord, was locked up; thus the inhabitants had to wash clothes, as well as cook, eat, and sleep in their small rooms. The dustbin, standing in front of the houses, was accessible to the whole neighbourhood, and boys often dragged from it quantities of unseemly objects and spread them over the court. The state of the drainage was in keeping with everything else. The pavement of the backyard was all broken up, and great puddles stood in it so that the damp crept up the outer walls. One large but dirty water-butt received the water laid on for the houses; it leaked, and for such as did not fill their jugs when the water came in, or who had no jugs to fill, there was no water. The former landlord's reply to one of the tenants who asked him to have an iron hoop put round the butt to prevent leakage, was, that 'if he didn't like it' (i.e. things as they were) 'he might leave'. The man to whom this was spoken - by far the best tenant in the place - is now with us, and often gives his spare time to making his room more comfortable, knowing that he will be retained, if he behaves well.
This landlord was a tradesman in a small way of business - not a cruel man, except in so far as variableness of dealing is cruelty; but he was a man without capital to spend on improvements, and lost an immense percentage of his rent by bad debts. I went over the houses with him the last day he collected his rents there, that he might introduce me to the people as the owner of the property. He took a man with him, whom, as he confided to me, he wished to pass off upon the people as a broker. It was evident that, whether they saw through this deceit or not, they had no experience which led them to believe he intended to carry into effect the threats he uttered. The arrears of rent were enormous. I had been informed that the honest habitually pay for the dishonest, the owner relying upon their payments to compensate for all losses; but I was amazed to find to what an extent this was the case. Six, seven, or even eight weeks' rent was due from most tenants, and in some cases very much more; whereas, since I took possession of the houses (of which I collect the rents each week myself) I have never allowed a second week's rent to become due.
I think no one who has not experienced it can fully realise the almost awed sense of joy with which one enters upon such a possession as that above described, conscious of having the power to set it, even partially, in order.
Jonathan Chalstrey, Senior Associate, MaST International, Learning and Development
JCA operates from Manchester and London, England and works with clients globally.
Cookies Information www.marlowwebsites.co.uk