As residents’ budgets continue to come under pressure, the savings retrofits offer are a lifeline. But many are reluctant to take part in projects due to mistrust – be that as a result of poor experiences with their landlord or fear of unfamiliar technology. And without resident buy-in, a project simply will not happen. For a start, it stops contractors entering residents’ homes and installing the required technologies.
During this three-part mini blog series with Tallarna on ‘Positive Resident Engagement on Retrofits’, we will be looking at how to meet residents where they are, addressing their concerns around new technologies, and the importance of leaving residents better off financially from day one. When these elements combine, at scale project buy-in is possible and has already happened.
In this first blog, we will explore the importance of residents’ lived experience and ensuring landlords’ teams are aligned.
Understanding Residents’ Financial Need for Retrofits
The past decade has seen a dramatic deterioration in residents’ real-term income. Austerity has resulted in over £30 billion in cuts to welfare payments, housing subsidies, and social services. At the same time, initiatives such as the bedroom tax and freezing of income tax thresholds has increased outgoings. And universal credit – intended to simplify government support for claimants and lift people out of poverty – has proved a headache, with frequent changes in eligibility, delayed pay-outs, and continual anxiety about whether these benefits will rise in line with inflation.
While the above circumstances are overwhelming in and of themselves, it is today’s specific macroeconomic outlook which has tipped many over the edge. Inflation on food and non-alcoholic drinks was 12.2% in the year to September 2023. Annual energy prices sit at £1,834, up from an average of £769 in 2021. As a result, it’s no longer a case of choosing between heating or eating for many residents; instead, 2.3 million households cannot regularly afford either.
Recognising that Retrofits Offer a Lifeline
The significant bill savings that retrofits offer are a lifeline. They put money back into residents’ pockets, they result in a more comfortable home, and they insulate against price rises on residual grid exposure. But despite this, a perception of poor resident uptake is holding back at scale action. According to BEIS research, 13% of providers have delayed their improvement plans because of resident refusal since 2010.
Given retrofits’ vast benefits, what causes such resident reluctance? And how can social housing providers (SHPs) meaningfully collaborate within communities to deliver positive lived impact?
While the answers to these questions are multifaceted, two key places to start are internal alignment and understanding residents’ lived context.
Internal Alignment is the Foundation of Strong Resident Engagement
Before engaging with residents on retrofits, social housing providers need to ensure they have organisational buy-in from the right parties, that resident repairs are up-to-date, and that they are clear on what engagement channels and messages have worked historically.
Internal alignment is vital if residents are to have a positive engagement experience. There’s no point in starting outreach on retrofits if internal stakeholders are unclear about what a project is, when it’s happening, where it’s located, how it’s planned, and, most importantly, why it’s being done. Otherwise, the result will be contradictory messages which will erode trust and uptake. It’s consistency and transparency that’s key for gaining resident buy-in.
Communication about a project needs to be led from the top. Typically, projects are decided at the C-suite and board level – meaning it’s these stakeholders who know the full picture, who understand the whys and wherefores. It’s therefore key that they disseminate their knowledge about a given project so that all team members, from the most junior to senior, can concisely articulate retrofits’ benefits and signpost residents to further information.
Understand Residents’ Lived Experience
Once landlords have internal buy-in, they need to consider how best to connect with residents. And this means empathising with residents’ lived experiences – of which outstanding repairs are a key element.
Landlords have a wealth of statistics at their fingertips – from knowing how many residents are in fuel poverty, how much money they will save because of retrofits, how many engage with existing comms, how many require support with damp and mould, and so on. And while this lens provides useful context – and indeed, is vital for optimising the impact of a given project – it obscures residents’ daily reality. And it’s this landlords’ need to understand and connect with.
Successful engagement involves empathising with residents’ problems. In the context of retrofits, this encompasses everything from residents being unable to afford to boil a kettle to regularly missing meals due to the cost of living. Acknowledging residents’ voices and experiences is vital to building mutual trust.
No matter how much a project will reduce energy bills or improve thermal comfort, there will not be buy-in if residents don’t trust their landlord. And without this, contractors will be unable install energy generation and efficiency technologies – meaning even the best laid projects will not happen.
Ensure Repairs are Up to Date
Unsurprisingly, a major element of residents’ lived reality is based on the state of their homes. And their agreement to capital works is going to be based on their historic interactions with their landlord. As an anonymous resident argued “If [my landlord] can’t repair my front door on time, why would they be able to retrofit my whole house properly?”.
As such, before starting outreach, it’s important to check the status of repair works and ensure they are up to date. And if they’re not, carrying out required repairs is an opportunity in and of itself. Often, residents feel the best time to ask questions is when a member of the repair and maintenance team comes round. So, equipping these team members with the right information should residents ask about how to save money on their energy bills or if they know of anything else that their landlord is planning is key. Of course, this needs to be done sensitively and is more about laying the groundwork for further communications than doing a deep dive into project specifics.
Create an Outreach Plan that Works for All
Once SHPs have secured the needed internal buy-in, understood residents’ lived experiences, and got up to date on repairs, the next step is involving residents in a systematic, coordinated way. Landlords first need to identify who is best placed to engage with residents and what communication channels have historically been effective. This can then be used as the basis of an action plan. Research by consultancy firm Osborne has found that residents place high value on simple, visual messaging and face-to-face engagement.
It’s important for landlords’ engagement plans to account for the different needs and preferences within each resident community, both for the purposes of engagement and to ensure projects benefit those they are designed for. Works must be inclusive of all residents, of all backgrounds, races, genders, abilities, sexualities, and religions – particularly those who have historically been left behind. Accounting for intersectionality is critical. Otherwise – aside from the sustainability benefits – what are retrofits for if not to improve residents’ lives?
Tailoring comms and projects to suit different people’s needs is not an optional extra. And there is no one size that fits all. But starting with the main elements of a project – most notably how it will financially benefit residents – before diving into the detail is key. And landlords must connect with residents where they are and how they like to be contacted – be that speaking to residents at local food banks or pre-natal classes, in Punjabi or Welsh, through a Facebook post or over text.
To maximise engagement, all different types of communication channels need to be leveraged in a coordinated way. This does not mean reinventing the wheel but rather making the best use of the resources you already have. And the best engagement takes the form of a two-way conversation.
Where Resident Engagement Needs to Go Next
Building strong, positive engagement on retrofits will not happen overnight. But it can be started by empowering residents financially and giving them peace of mind over their energy bills.
In our next blog, we will look at four key resident concerns on retrofits and how to address them. This includes how insurance helps residents become comfortable with unfamiliar technologies, the importance of long-term project visibility, and hearing from others’ lived experiences of successful projects.
Michelle Taute, Tallarna
Kris Ablett, Sero