One Housing and service charges
Housing Associations now manage a complex mix of rented, owned, and part-owned accommodation, sometimes even within a single block.
This has made it frustratingly complex to manage the individual allocation of service charges and rentals.
Standard IT systems for social housing emerged in simpler times and can do little to help. Most Housing Associations have instead ended up using spreadsheets to manage the calculations – to the endless horror of their auditors.
The problem(s) with spreadsheets
This was the situation we found ourselves in at One Housing. We were trying to handle the services charges and rental calculations of over 15,000 homes using nothing more sophisticated than Excel.
The result was a series of huge and unwieldy spreadsheets that were perilously susceptible to human error. Worse, it was almost impossible to produce meaningful reports when they were needed.
So large were the spreadsheets, Excel itself was in danger of failing. The effort required to maintain them was almost overwhelming our staff.
Unless something changed, further growth was out of the question.
Enter Trace Solutions: the private sector service charge specialist
Trace are the company that first computerised property management in the UK, some 40 years ago, and they’ve been a leader in the private sector ever since.
They produce off-the-shelf property management software that provides a complete end to end solution, unifying services charges, rents, and accounts ledgers. The software can also integrate happily with any existing landscape of systems, to provide specific, specialist functionality.
For our needs, Trace’s long expertise in service charge management seemed an ideal fit. Not least because their ability to manage income and expenditure with all due rigour has been absolutely critical to their success in private sector property management.
Merging private and public sector mindsets
Trace were already working on service charges with another Housing Association, Family Mosaic, as well as West Lothian Council and Pinnacle Property Management. The UK’s largest residential managing agent, Countrywide, had been a Trace client for many years.
But we wanted to create a real ‘state-of-the-art’ solution, taking the best of the private sector and adding new elements that were unique to social housing.
Only that way, we believed, would our IT and finance departments overcome their aversion to change and understand the huge potential benefits that awaited.
Working together to create something amazing
Trace, too, were keen to build something special for the Housing Association market. So together we began a detailed analysis of our business requirements and what needed to change in the software. All this work was carried out at their expense.
The process covered small items such as terminology and the writing of new standard letters to residents; but also major procedural innovations such as legal conformity with the Housing Act and eligibility or otherwise for benefits.
Once we’d added full rental calculations to the package – another area in which we were dependent on spreadsheets – we had a system that was ready to implement.
Unexpected benefits: Trace software in action
By getting rid of spreadsheets, we’d wanted to free up time and eliminate human error. We’d wanted to put ourselves in a position where we could expand, without having to worry about the consistency of our underlying systems or compliance with best practice. Well – so much, so easy.
Less expected were the benefits of having a real time reporting system and data that was always up to date. The ability to generate a budget vs actual or a draft reconciliation whenever we need it now means we can support business decisions with actual data, rather than guesswork.
And by being proactive on service charges, rather than simply responding to past mistakes, we’re no longer wasting money needlessly.
We can’t wait to go further
Our experience with Trace has been extremely fruitful, and we already see the potential to extend the use of the software still further.
For example, One Housing operates a number of commercial retail units, and in due course we’ll incorporate their management into a single system.
It also makes sense to move all our income management, from setting to collecting, into Trace, to take advantage of their advanced reporting facilities.
Most interestingly, we’re looking at the creation of online portals for residents. These are websites where residents can make payments, view statements, and monitor the status of repairs.
After all, if such things are good enough for private sector tenants, why shouldn’t our residents benefit, too?