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Opinion: Housing, communities & a goldmine of data

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Opinion: Housing, communities & a goldmine of data

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Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Housing

Data Data

Image: Data via Shutterstock

By Catherine Glew, Researcher, NPC

It’s a cliché: social housing is more than bricks and mortar. Decent homes—well-insulated, well-equipped and affordable—are a step towards stability and wellbeing for tenants and communities. But social landlords know that a home is just the start—the clue’s in their name.

Up and down the country, providers invest in their neighbourhoods beyond housing stock, through social programmes in employment, health and environment. As National Housing Federation chief executive David Orr said recently, community investment can be ground-breaking work with profound impact on people's lives.

This will always stimulate interest at NPC, where we work to improve how charities and funders are in their everyday work. From this perspective, social housing providers look like sleeping giants.

They are largely unhindered by the problems that localism poses for other charities, where the biggest responsibility for community wellbeing can be passed on to the little guys—struggling community organisations and charities, hampered by lack of staff, data, and funding. But the biggest social player behind many communities in need is the social landlord, with access to all three.

Housing organisations have resources to shape their communities that charities would be envious of—data on tenant needs, their pick of the best partners, and clear potential for ‘joined up’ community work. They have the potential to be powerful conveners, working with local civil society and attracting further funding into their neighbourhoods.

But to do that, they need to know what works—and who to work with.

Measure your impact

The housing sector is thinking about social impact for the same reasons as many charities—because more authorities, funders and communities are asking for evidence. It’s tempting to find a big number and shout it loudly—number of lives touched, number of pounds saved. But this approach is just one part of the puzzle. Good measurement doesn’t just tell you whether a programme works, but how it does—and how it can be improved.

A social value model may show cost savings of a health programme, or the value of removing mould in a property. But why does the programme work? How have people’s lives changed, and who has it failed to reach?  It may be common sense that wellbeing increases after mould is removed, but the whys are harder to pin down—is it improved health? Pride in the home? What caused it in the first place—poor insulation? Overcrowding? Fuel poverty? Good old-fashioned research will provide the clues—talking with residents in a rigorous, methodical way using well-designed surveys and methods.

Use your data

Many landlords already collect enormous amounts of information on their residents—their own big data on need and satisfaction. This data can be a powerful tool in tailoring programmes—where are older people in poor health? Where are the ASB hotspots?—and showing social value. Unlike smaller charities starting from data zero when measuring their impact, social landlords are sitting on a goldmine of information.

Choose your partners

Though social landlords are housing experts, they may not be experts in employment or health—many partner with other organisations to deliver social programmes, a relationship with potential for mutual benefit. Here housing providers are more like grant-givers than charities, and should choose wisely to make the biggest impact. They can pick the best of the bunch, based on a shared mission that fits with their community strategy and the partner charity’s impact record. Sharing experiences and grants with other funders—including foundations or philanthropists—will increase learning and impact.

The recipe for success - and failure

Measuring social impact can feel like opening a can of worms—social problems like health and unemployment are deep and intractable and where some programmes are successful, others fail. But providers should be bold and show their learning to achieve social returns. Housing organisations can’t do everything, but good measurement can have a multiplier effect, providing blueprints for local authorities and commissioners to step in to plug larger gaps. By being open about successful approaches—and less successful ones—the sector can move forward together, unlocking its hidden potential for social change.

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