In April 2018 we announced the latest group of projects to be awarded grants from the ShareLab fund. In this round we were seeking ideas that used collaborative platforms to address the theme of ‘prevention’ - tackling a social problem at the root before it escalates into something much bigger, more complex, and expensive to resolve.
HomePointr was founded by Adesamne (Fash) Fashoro who, having spent twelve years working with various housing providers and referral agencies, had felt firsthand the frustrations of trying to find suitable housing options for people in need.
Fash and his team are building a specialist property listing platform designed to streamline the renting process for both referral agencies (such as the NHS, prison service and project workers) and housing providers.
Below Fash answers some questions about the problem they’re working to address, the work they’ve done so far and what they’ve learned along the way.
What's the problem you're trying to solve
Today’s affordable housing referral and social housing allocation management processes are broken. Most providers are making decisions based on outdated allocation policies along with paper-based referral processes, leading to tenancy-offer refusals exceeding 35%.
To manage housing applications, referral agencies still use phone calls and paper-based methods that fail to bridge gaps in social housing despite their significant costs. The results are millions of pounds in lost income for social landlords, wasted resources and substantial delays.
These processes usually also result in low customer satisfaction, little-to-no visibility into referral patterns and inadequate business intelligence. For both the housing provider and the referral agency, there is an undue administrative burden, substantial lost revenue and unsustainable risk exposure.
How are you trying to solve it?
In Scotland, many organisations are independently tackling homelessness. However, for people facing a housing crisis there is a need to navigate a complex web of resources and requirements, resulting in an inefficient expenditure of time, energy and focus.
HomePointr was set up with a desire to see collaborative technology used to improve efficiency across the social housing sector, and to make sure more people were aware of all the housing options available to them. We are passionate about building bridges and better connecting housing providers with referral agencies.
When HomePointr was awarded the Nesta ShareLab grant, it enabled us to take on staff to key roles and launch our alpha pilot programme. Our focus was on lead generation and conversion, as well as developing our platform from the minimum viable product to something that would cope with real world users.
The concept of the HomePointr platform is to have social housing providers (from affordable housing providers to private landlords) list their vacant properties, with details of the location, property type and size, and amount of rent. Referral agencies, acting on behalf of their clients, can easily search all available properties, using filters to narrow the search results, and send a message through the platform directly to the landlord, lodging an expression of interest in the property and communicating directly on the platform.
What have you done so far?
To better understand the problem, HomePointr used human-centred design methods and techniques to research many different aspects and dimensions of the societal challenges we are trying to solve.
We have developed our Alpha product which we are currently evaluating for effectiveness and reliability. We have secured the help of BluePrint inc, who are offering us pro-bono software development support to develop our Beta product, which we hope will be ready for launch by May 2019.
We are now working with over 20 organisations in our pilot programme, and most days our site lists between 10 and 20 properties spread across the Scottish central belt. The referral agencies represent a mix of local and national organisations, and collectively are working with thousands of people experiencing homelessness or requiring more suitable accommodation. New features are being added to the platform all the time, including filtering, a new user interface (UI), better maps, improved messaging and a simpler log in procedure.
What's gone well?
Overall, HomePointr considers that the project has been broadly successful in making good progress towards the goals, although some issues remain to be clarified and there are several challenges that need to be resolved as the Beta version is developed.
What's been difficult or not gone to plan and why?
Although we are fully aware of the problem we are trying to solve, we have had difficulty in developing the platform, particularly picking the right technology stacks and recruiting developers with domain expertise. Substantial efforts are needed to help software developers understand the dynamics of the affordable housing service delivery context and processes, and to develop solutions that work within the context.
Bringing innovation and better utilisation of technology to the Scottish social housing sector has presented a difficult challenge, as many systems are manually driven and based on processes adopted many years earlier.
Attracting pilot stakeholders as planned was also very challenging. Participation in the Alpha phase required the engagement of both housing providers and referral agencies in localised partnerships. There were difficulties in securing the release of housing opportunity data by housing providers and building active use of platform by referral agencies. It took longer than anticipated to develop that network and to reach an agreement on the terms of the pilot phase and the level of participation required.
A constant measure to monitor in this b2b model is the balance of housing providers and referral agencies. If we have too many vacant properties and not enough people searching, the housing providers will become disillusioned and stop listing their properties; if we don’t have enough properties listed, the referral agencies will search elsewhere and stop using the platform.
A barrier that we removed early-on was the proposed subscription fee. We determined that the real value to our business at this stage was both people using the platform and the feedback we could gather, and it made it much simpler to get organisations to sign up to the pilot.
What you've learned / how your plan has changed
We learned that connecting referral agencies to appropriate housing providers and housing opportunities is a regional solution, which required us to think differently about how we approached piloting and testing the Beta solution.
We have also learned that two-sided marketplace are difficult to implement in the ‘tech for good’ arena. Successful implementation requires engagement between the referral sender’s management and frontline staff; iteration of the technology to fit with the daily routine and needs of frontline staff; user training and ongoing support; and bidirectional communication between the implementation team and frontline end users.
But we have also seen just how relevant and required a digital solution which better links stakeholders to opportunities is across sectors. Our partnership with both sides, has shown that access to a digital collaborative solution that matches housing needs with housing opportunities is applicable and can be implemented far more broadly than just improving access to suitable housing options.
We also believe that the culture and systems common across the housing and homeless sector must change to support the use of technology for social impact and new ways of working. In addition to this, partners must ensure that frontline staff are clear about their roles in a pilot project.
Results so far
We now have a stable and user-friendly platform to which we are constantly adding features based on feedback from our pilot partners. Collaboration across the housing and homeless sector and connecting other pilot partners to the solution has been essential. Referral agencies continue to make expressions of interests on behalf of homeless and vulnerable applicants and are able to access housing opportunities.
An interesting development, which came a little sooner than anticipated, was a meeting with the CEO of a local council in central Scotland. They are interested in trialling HomePointr as their single point of contact for housing solutions, both for their housing property team to list vacancies and their social work and housing teams to search through council stock, which is currently all done manually with paper lists and emails between teams.
The grant from Nesta has allowed us to get our platform out into the market and to start building momentum. In time we desire to be working right across Scotland and, eventually, across the UK. We want to be supporting more local authorities and councils in fulfilling their mandate to accommodate people in need. We want to equip social work and housing teams in hospitals and prisons to find suitable accommodation for people due to leave their service. Above all, we want people to feel empowered about their choice of housing and to see more people living in permanent settings, reducing homelessness and transforming our society.
Our Beta version is currently under development. Our next steps are to share findings back to Nesta, our partner agencies and to disseminate via presentation and publication. Our current study establishes the feasibility of using collaborative technology to improve access to suitable housing options by connecting housing providers with referral senders. Based on these findings, our aim is to extend and expand our research to understand the mechanisms through which digital collaborative housing referral solution impacts social housing and outcomes for homeless and vulnerable groups.