By Jo Ferris-Davies
Last week, I was involved with NASHO’s Housing Supervisor’s course. This highly interactive 11 day course is broken down into one, two, and three day modules. It covers the background to social housing, understanding how a social housing institution (SHI) sets rents, role of the Housing Supervisor, customer service, understanding how building and their components work, and effectively working with cleaners and security to ensure the building runs smoothly. Each Housing Supervisor commits to participate in the entire course. In between modules, participants are required to prepare homework assignments. The approach emphasizes sharing ideas and practices between the SHIs. We hope that relationships will form that will last beyond the final classroom module.
Housing Supervisors are important to SHIs because they are the day-to-day face of the non-profit and they deal with the daily issues tenants have living in their building. They help collect rents, follow up on arrears, and manage cleaners and security staff to ensure buildings remain secure and tidy. They are often also responsible for minor repairs, introducing new tenants to the building, and conducting exit interviews.
There were almost 30 people attending the course from four SHIs. Interestingly, when NASHO ran the course a number of years ago there were no women in attendance. Last week, 20% of the participants were women.
I staffed the breakout sessions – one of which was about an hour and involved role plays. Our group developed a role play where one of the staff played a Housing Supervisor and another was to play a difficult tenant. This is not an easy task when fifteen of your colleagues are watching and listening to everything being said. The assignment was to reinforce professional behaviour – for example, having the lease in front of you when the Housing Supervisor is referring to its content. When we debriefed, it became apparent that what they really wanted to discuss were strategies to be professional – especially when engaging with difficult tenants. We spent over an hour identifying and sharing ideas and strategies, and practicing effective skills to deal with difficult situations.
In South Africa – tone of voice and body language are especially important when talking to people respectfully. Although a number of the participants were new to the sector, many had been working for a number of years and were able to share tips that worked. Simple things like having a piece of paper and writing down numerically the issues that the tenant raised with you. Then repeating back to him or her what you had heard to get confirmation before working through the issues.
One of the issues raised was how to be consistent and fair with tenants when you were tired. It isn’t uncommon to be called into to deal with a domestic matter late at night and then have to be up in the morning dealing with more complicated issues in the building. The Housing Supervisors indicated that they were not trained and had no resources to deal with domestic violence. Another area we talked about was dealing with management. We emphasized that the same communication skills we were working on would be effective with providing management with feedback. Too often I have observed that staff work in silos – something that is common everywhere but here even more so. A future challenge will be for management to create opportunities to learn from the front line staff so they can improve how they do business.
As the Housing Supervisors reminded us all, “It really is all about providing the best service to tenants.”