Part 3: Placing people in social housing and understanding their needs

Using information to improve social housing services.

In this Part, we discuss how effectively Housing New Zealand uses information:

Summary of our findings

Housing New Zealand uses information from the Ministry and other organisations when making decisions about placing people in the right house. However, Housing New Zealand's operational staff do not feel that they always have enough information to make placements that meet people's needs, particularly when these needs are complex.

Housing New Zealand staff need clearer guidance and better processes to support getting the information they need to place people in social housing. Housing New Zealand is trialling pre-placement interviews with people applying for social housing as a way to get more detailed information and help make better placements.

Housing New Zealand now intends to do this for more tenants. This information will support better placements and also provide better information to help Housing New Zealand meet the ongoing needs of its tenants.

Better understanding people's needs to make more effective placements

Unsuitable placements can create serious issues. For example, a person receiving help from a mental health provider was placed in a house that was unsuitable, given their particular mental health issues. The mental health provider had to spend a lot of time working with Housing New Zealand to get the person moved. This created a lot of stress for the tenant. In another example, someone with behavioural issues was placed in a group of flats, which caused issues for the neighbours.

Housing New Zealand needs to have the right information so it can place people in the most suitable house for their needs. Operational staff gave us numerous examples of unsuitable suggested placements because of a lack of information. For example, Housing New Zealand offered a person a two-storey house and found out about the person's mobility issues only when the person met the tenancy manager to sign the tenancy documents.

In our survey of social service and advocacy groups, 60% of respondents felt that Housing New Zealand took people's needs into account when placing them in a house.

Housing New Zealand and the Ministry share information about people applying for social housing

The Ministry and Housing New Zealand have an official agreement about exchanging information between the two organisations. This provides a basis for the sharing of information.

When a house becomes available, the Ministry provides Housing New Zealand with a list of applicants and information about them, including contact details, how many bedrooms are needed, and health and disability information. Before the Social Housing Reform Programme, Housing New Zealand staff collected the information, and it was all available in-house. Now Housing New Zealand staff receive this information from the Ministry.

In general, the Ministry considers that the information it gives Housing New Zealand is sufficient for an effective placement. The Ministry is mindful of privacy issues and shares only what it considers relevant. It also relies on prospective tenants sharing all relevant information during the application process. The Ministry is also mindful of the risk of providing any information that could negatively affect the person's chances of being placed in a house.

However, Housing New Zealand's operational staff feel that the information they get from the Ministry about some people does not provide enough detail for the staff to find the most suitable house for that person that also meets their wider social needs.

For example, the Ministry might tell Housing New Zealand that a person applying for social housing has mental health issues but will not provide any details of what these issues might be. Another example involved Housing New Zealand not knowing someone was a recovering drug addict. This person was placed in a neighbourhood surrounded by drug activity, which made their continued recovery difficult.

Housing New Zealand staff also had concerns about potential health and safety risks from not knowing a person's background and circumstances. For example, some Housing New Zealand staff feel that, if a person has just been released from prison, they should know the release conditions. This could affect how Housing New Zealand staff interact with that person.

Some staff in both Housing New Zealand and the Ministry felt that the Ministry is too risk averse in how it decides what information about a tenant's circumstances and social needs to share. In our view, both organisations need to work more closely together to understand what information should be shared.

Information from other organisations

Housing New Zealand also has official agreements for sharing information with the New Zealand Police and the Department of Corrections. However, not all staff we talked to knew about these.

Housing New Zealand staff have also had situations where staff in other organisations, such as the Accident Compensation Corporation or mental health providers, were not clear about what information they could share. It would be helpful for Housing New Zealand to make clear what information its staff should expect from other organisations.

Overall, many Housing New Zealand staff have a strong commitment to putting people in the right houses for an ongoing tenancy. At a local level, staff gather information about people from a variety of sources to do this. Staff also develop their own relationships with other organisations and social service providers. Although this can work well in some areas, it is not always effective.

Housing New Zealand has started trialling pre-placement interviews for some people applying for social housing to improve the information it gets. This supplements the information it gets from the Ministry. Although this initiative is still in its early stages, Housing New Zealand has been positive about the results and is now intending to do pre-placement interviews for more of its tenants.

The interviews have allowed Housing New Zealand to collect detailed information to make a placement that suits the person's needs and also to have information about the person to help support their ongoing tenancy.

Housing New Zealand needs to provide more guidance to its staff, and establish better processes, so they have the right information for placing people in houses. The guidance should include which organisations to collect information from and how it should be collected, and what staff can expect from other organisations, including the Ministry.

More information needed to manage ongoing needs of people in social housing

Housing New Zealand needs to continue to improve its understanding of the ongoing needs of its tenants to enable it to manage its tenancies more effectively. In our survey of social service providers and advocacy groups, 33% of respondents thought that Housing New Zealand understood the needs of people in social housing.

Housing New Zealand's latest survey of 500 tenants in June 2017 showed that 59% agreed that their tenancy manager took their individual needs into account and that 70% agreed that, overall, they were satisfied with services from Housing New Zealand.

Respondents to our survey of social service providers and advocacy groups suggested that Housing New Zealand's could be more responsive to people's needs. They felt there were opportunities for Housing New Zealand to develop better ways of working with particular groups of tenants, such as people leaving mental health services.

Much of Housing New Zealand's information about its tenants currently comes from the Ministry. Housing New Zealand staff do not routinely collect information from other organisations.

Although Housing New Zealand staff we spoke to identified the need for this information to help tenants, they were unclear about what information should be consistently collected or where it should be recorded. Currently, this information might be kept in manual spreadsheets at a local level or not be formally documented. Because this data is not recorded in a single location, accessing it is difficult.

Housing New Zealand staff are also not clear on how best to manage their role in getting tenants the social support services they need. When they visit tenants, they become aware of any needs that are not being met.

Although staff are not responsible for solving the issue, they do need to support the person to get the help they need to sustain the tenancy if possible. Housing New Zealand staff feel that they do not have the training, expertise, or time to deal with some of the situations they encounter.

However, Housing New Zealand is starting to work on better ways to support the broader needs of people in social housing. A recent initiative involves Housing New Zealand helping people connect with any social service they might need. This and the pre-placement interview trials can make a difference in knowing what support is required.

Information sharing between organisations

In our view, Housing New Zealand needs to have an understanding with the Ministry on the information that can be shared under the current privacy agreements to ensure that its tenants are supported. For example, there were different views in both organisations on the need for disclosure forms when Housing New Zealand staff discuss a person's details with Ministry staff.

Housing New Zealand staff also held differing views on what information about people in their houses could be shared in discussions with other social service organisations when accessing support or advice. Housing New Zealand needs to provide its staff with more clarity about what information they can share with other organisations to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of ongoing tenancy management.

Recommendation 1
We recommend that Housing New Zealand Corporation give its staff clearer guidance and better processes to support getting the information they need to effectively place people in social housing and for ongoing tenancy management.