The pandemic has had an unforeseen and often existential impact on many people’s lives. Both commercial and private tenants are experiencing more payment difficulties than usual. Melahat Konak and her ten-member rent debt counselling team see themselves as crisis and solution managers. In the process, they are aware of their social responsibility as part of a municipal housing company. But most of all, Melahat Konak gives encouragement to those affected and is convinced: the right approach is to help people help themselves.
Ms Konak, why does a municipal housing company have an in-house for rent debt counselling?
Melahat Konak: The answer is in the question. As a municipal housing company, we have a social mandate. First and foremost, it is about keeping the apartments for the tenants and restoring their ability to pay. As an in-house team, it is important to fulfil the cooperation agreement with the state of Berlin while ensuring that the company remains economical and competitive. It should not be forgotten that we as Gewobag also support social projects that are important for the city.
Can tenants contact you and your team directly?
Melahat Konak: Yes. Of course, it makes sense for the tenant to contact us directly with payment problems.
How exactly do you and your team provide support?
The most important thing is encouraging tenants to get in touch with us. Especially now during the pandemic, many people find themselves in financially difficult situations. It is important to me to send a signal with this interview: come to us in good time. Many procedures and help are tied to certain deadlines, such as applications to the authorities or state aid. The later applications are made, the later the claim takes effect. And the sooner tenants get in touch, the easier it is to pay off the arrears in smaller instalments. We handle everything discreetly and in accordance with data privacy guidelines.
Which ways out can you and your team suggest?
Melahat Konak: The first way is, of course, communication so that we know the reason for the rent arrears. If we know this, we can suggest appropriate solutions. For example, whether state aid is an option or whether we can offer an in-house deferment or instalment payments. However, we can only provide advice on this if we know the causes, the financial background. It is important to note: we are not legal advisers. We can offer options and suggestions.
How are you able to communicate with tenants during the pandemic?
Melahat Konak: Mainly via telephone. Then, of course, via email and post. The declaration of consent to use tenants’ contact data is critical here. We also make personal contact in exceptional situations, when no other kind of contact is possible – in compliance with all hygiene rules.
What do you and your team provide to be able to advise tenants in crisis situations?
Melahat Konak: The prerequisites are notably knowledge of tenancy and social law, a high level of social competence and strong communication skills. These factors are important, on the one hand, to suggest the appropriate solution and, on the other hand, to be able to reach people who are in crisis situations. A financial crisis cannot be considered separately from a difficult situation on a personal level. For this reason, mutual trust must be built. We cannot offer identical solutions to everyone, it’s individual –like the reasons for rent debt.
How big is the rent debt counselling team at Gewobag?
Melahat Konak: We have ten rent debt counsellors who are responsible for the operational business of Gewobag’s portfolio. Of course, we work in accordance with certain parameters that are given to us and regulated in-house.
How important are training and professional development within the team to be able to provide adequate support on sensitive issues in rent debt counselling?
Melahat Konak: We can only offer ways, show ways out, if our knowledge is up to date. What I always initiate every year is communication coaching. We have to reach tenants who are in crisis situations and often bury their heads in the sand. We try to help them get out of this situation. Because what is very clear is: we can only help people to help themselves. The tenants have to cooperate. This is why communication skills are very important. The team is also brought up to speed on legal topics such as social and tenancy law.
The most important advice for tenants who fall into arrears?
Melahat Konak: That they contact us as soon as possible. We also have tenants who already contact us pre-emptively because of acute payment difficulties. This is very good for working effectively and swiftly on the right solution option for that tenant. And it’s ultimately important to counteract possible terminations and stop automated internal processes.
What do you like about your job?
Melahat Konak: I think I speak for my team there as well: to see that you can have a positive impact on the lives of people who are in difficult situations. You can influence lives in a positive way.
Thank you for talking with us!
Photos © Aurelio Schrey, Maren Schulz
Editor’s note: archive images were used for the article due to coronavirus-related regulations.