Reducing social housing rental arrears

  • Social housing provides a safety net for vulnerable people, providing housing assistance to those who need it, while they need it

  • In NSW 290,000 people live in social housing

  • Tenants pay below market rent and related expenses. If these payments are not made on time, their account goes into arrears

When a tenant’s account goes into arrears, the Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) has to follow up with them to collect the overdue rent or set up a payment plan. They send letters, make phone calls and visit tenants in person. It is a resource intensive process.  

FACS wanted to see if a reminder text message would be more effective in getting people to pay their rental arrears or set up a payment plan.

The trial

We worked with FACS to set up a randomised controlled trial. When people went into rental arrears, they were randomly allocated to one of five groups. All groups received the letter notifying them they were in rental arrears; however four of the groups also received one of four different text messages. The text messages were designed using different behavioural principles.

Text messages


Text Message

Version 1

Your rent is overdue. More than 9 out of 10 tenants in your area have paid their rent on time. Paying now keeps you in your home. Visit

Version 2

Your rent is overdue. Your tenancy may be at risk if you do not pay now. Call your local office or visit

Version 3

Your rent is overdue. Unpaid rent costs the government and community money which could be used to help others like you find a home. Visit

Version 4

Your rent is overdue. When you moved in, you committed to pay your rent on time. You have broken this agreement. Visit

The trial ran for six months and nearly 10,000 text messages were sent. Over three quarters of people who received the text messages paid their overdue rent or entered into a payment plan, compared to 68.5 per cent who only received the letter.

The most effective text message was Version 4. We also found some groups of tenants, such as people aged between 55 and 64 and households that included people with a disability were more responsive to the text message than letters.

During the trial, some people went into rental arrears for a second or third time. These people were again randomly allocated to one of the five groups. However this time we tested if people need a reminder text message when they went into arrears. This phase of the trial found that people were more likely to pay their overdue rent if they receive another text message. The trial also found that sending different messages to tenants was more effective than sending the same message again.