Caring for people during the pandemic isn’t new to social housing; since lockdown was first announced, millions of welfare calls, visits and food parcels have been handed out by housing associations to tenants all over the country.

However, it isn’t just in the social rent market where putting people first is important. The problems of Covid-19 have extended well beyond those in a rented setting and it’s their approach to dealing with first-time buyers that Together Housing Group think led to their best ever year for sales.

The Group, which is one of the largest housing associations in the North of England with 36,000 homes, announced their most successful sales year to date this month with 171 sales, up 54% on the previous year and smashing all income targets. These results, which mainly relate to sales made under the Together Homes brand, come after a year which has seen restrictions on viewings, no staff recruitment and the capacity issues relating to lockdown, school closures and self-isolation.

The sales figures come in tandem with a strong satisfaction rating and performance level among employees and a strong corporate direction with the launch of a new five-year corporate vision.

Whilst the housing market generally has been buoyant, Frances Clarke, Head of Sales & Lettings at Together Housing Group, puts much of the sales success down to the hard work of the sales and marketing teams in adapting to the needs of the market: “While Covid-19 presented all kinds of new issues to people, it also presented opportunities to address them. While the Neighborhood Officers were doing their bit to look after tenants who were vulnerable or whose circumstances meant they couldn’t pay their rent, the sales team were looking after those who needed to move to a new house.”

This story was certainly true for Sharon Anderson. Living in lockdown in her partner’s accommodation her relationship broke down and she faced the reality that she needed somewhere new to live and needed it quickly. “I had no choice,” she says, “I needed to move urgently.”

She was tired of spending what she calls “the dead money” of rent but, at 55, was worried that ownership wasn’t an option. Spotting a Together Home within minutes of her office in Garstang Road near Preston, Lancashire, she made contact with Together Homes who got the ball rolling straight away: “I clicked immediately with my Sale’s Consultant as she understood that what was happening was going to be changing rapidly and needed a fast solution,” she recalls. “My family are dispersed around the country, I don’t know the area particularly well so I needed a home in a place I could rely on, close to work, with space for family to come to stay once restrictions lifted. I needed to understand shared ownership and find out if I could apply for a mortgage and get moved as soon as possible.”

After firing off an email logging an interest on valentine’s day 2021, she spoke to a Shared ownership expert and solicitor and got the approval she needed. Just over a month later, on the 19th March, one year to the day that the prime Minister began the first moves towards lockdown and less than five weeks since she made her initial enquiry, she moved into her forever home. As well as a design that suited her, it had a nice garden which was essential in the lockdown climate. “Together Homes understood shared ownership, understood my needs and understood how lockdown had left me with no choice but to move quickly. I’ve lived in 23 houses in my life and dealt with many landlords all around Britain. Together Homes has got me settled and I won’t be moving again.”

Frances says this example is echoed across buyers and shows why the Group have a different offer to others: “As a developer we talk about units, as a sales team we talk about targets but as a housing association we talk about people. Our staff have spent their time understanding the needs people have during the pandemic and what’s required to help resolve them. It’s these resolutions that have meant such an increase in sales and shown why housing associations need to be leaders in the shared ownership market.”

Kevin Ruth, Deputy Chief Executive of Together Housing Group, says that this ethos is echoed in the Group’s new roadmap out of Covid and into the future. “Our new plans focus on people; our vision is that over the next five years staff will work differently, customers will have different expectations for their homes, communities will come together differently and the priorities related to climate change will mean approaching things differently. This is as true in our work developing and selling as it is renting out existing stock.

“What isn’t different is that we’re a housing association. We’re not just investing in building new homes, we’re investing in the place and people around them. It’s this approach which means that even at a time of national crisis we have been able to improve on previous results and push performance to a new level. “