Lawrence Morris, Policy Officer at the National Housing Federation, rounds up the latest views and issues arising in our regional finance forums.
The chairs of each of our regional finance forums across the country have been sharing views from their own organisations and their sense of emerging issues regionally.
Whilst we know this won’t by any means capture the experiences of every housing association in every part of the country, we hope it is useful to give a sense of some of the things that are arising frequently. As you would expect, there are lots of areas of common concern and focus at the current time but it is also notable that there some distinct local and regional differences.
From a resident perspective, it is a really challenging time with many in fear of being in arrears for the first time. Many housing associations have put great effort into helping to keep residents informed and providing whatever support they need to navigate through a very difficult and stressful period.
Housing associations are monitoring arrears closely and whilst some have reported a spike, many have also commented that the impact to date has been less severe that first feared.
Monitoring by Housemark has suggested that median arrears increased to 3.37% in April, representing over £100m of additional arrears since lockdown began. It remains to be seen what the impact of potential future shocks in relation to the end of the furlough scheme and longer term unemployment trends might be.
A backlog of vacant homes has also reduced income across the sector. Housemark estimates a backlog of around 45,000 additional vacant homes. Conversations with FPAG and our regional forums have suggested that there is some variation across local authorities, where some are low on resource and are taking some time to get nominations in.
Most housing associations are saying that they have a significant backlog of repairs, and bringing back internal labour from furlough or waiting for sub-contractors to get back to normal is going to take some time to recover.
There will also be the added pressure on catch-up costs due to social distancing issues (longer time needed to complete jobs, more labour needed), use of sub-contractors, PPE and demand for materials. Meanwhile demand is starting to increase again, call volumes are back up and there is an expectation among residents that things are starting to return to normal.
However, whilst some have described demand as ‘back to normal’, others have commented that it definitely still remains much lower, perhaps indicative of individual, local or regional differences in attitudes towards the easing of lockdown.
Like all organisations up and down the country, housing associations have had to adapt quickly to new ways of working, ensuring their staff are equipped to work from home. Many have commented very positively about how adaptive and agile they feel the sector has been and are considering this as an opportunity for the future. Year-end work and audits are or have been proceeding relatively smoothly.
However, the picture is undoubtedly also a mixed one. Housing associations have described additional pressure on staff both physically and mentally, due to frustration with certain processes taking longer and engagement in online meetings being worse.
Ultimately there seems to be an opportunity and desire to learn from the experience, and our enhanced use of technology, and keep what has worked well and what can potentially lead to greater efficiencies for the future.
For many housing associations, the impact of voids, arrears and reduced sales has all been offset in the first couple of months by reduced repairs and service costs, furlough receipts, delayed development expenditure and delayed planned maintenance costs.
However, as works restart there is the danger that expenditure accelerates at a pace that exceeds the income recovery. Therefore, reviewing cash flows, KPIs, business plans, and covenants is essential and having those early conversations if needed with board and funders.