Why do Smaller Landlords Matter to Local Communities?
Representing Imani Housing Cooperative Ltd as Chair, a small registered social landlord for over 30 years based in Wandsworth, London, I was invited to the Housing Plus Academy think tank event in partnership with Trafford Hall (National Community Resource Centre, Chester), and London School of Economics which I saw as an interesting proposition. At this participation event, the business model of smaller housing associations and its relationship to the local communities they serve could be reflected upon, evaluated, and explored in the context of possibilities for growth in partnership with larger housing associations who had the capacity to facilitate development at cost on their behalf.
The Housing Plus Academy
The Housing Plus Academy’s bio reads “…A partnership between the London School of Economics Housing and Communities, 18 leading social housing providers, the National Housing Federation, The Chartered Institute of Housing and the National Communities Resource Centre at Trafford Hall. Its purpose is to promote knowledge, exchange and participative learning among frontline staff and tenants of social landlords. The Academy tackles key issues and problem affecting social landlords today, particularly welfare reform, financial pressures, energy saving working skills, community enterprise, and community resilience.”
Professor Anne Power
Professor of Social Policy LSE, Anne Power, led think tank event challenging participants to express and think carefully about their place within the housing landscape; providing a unique opportunity within a cooperative learning framework to learn from the diversity of small housing providers who not only provide homes but support their communities with unseen and often unquantifiable inputs of energy, time, resources, counselling, advice and much more, which serves to bridge the increasing gaps in diminishing local authority and voluntary sector provision. The think tank event was clearly designed to start unpacking the larger questions of how, when, if and can smaller housing providers start to provide answers to the housing crisis; can smaller housing providers truly work in partnership with larger corporate housing organisations to produce greater value; What value do smaller social landlords provide to their community; How can smalls leverage their unique position at the heart of communities to build more capacity.
In the very first session which sought to explore the value of smaller social landlords, a stat exclaimed that smaller housing associations (those with less than 1500 homes) represented over 70% of social housing providers in the UK and in 2016/17 from a development perspective only provided 84 new housing units. This statistic stated without context is very misleading as have been many of the stats relating to the performance of the social housing to meet the increasing needs of affordable housing. To be fair it was said by a representative from L&Q about the launch of the new joint venture development initiative (to provide 1000 homes by 2022) piloted with BME London Landlords a group of 14 BME led HA’s, which had secured initial funding, supporting a u-turn in attitudes from central government towards enabling smaller housing providers to unlock their latent financial assets to provide more homes to address the housing crisis. This initiative and the launch of the Community Housing Fund were key drivers for the Think Tank event which was supported by The L&Q Foundation amongst others.
Historical Slow Growth Model
The cross section of smaller housing providers represented, all of whom were founded with philanthropic ideals and had been around for many years, in one case over 90 years, had the commonality of starting out meeting specific rather than general needs. We established that the smaller housing business models in the main were developed on the basis of slow growth, which fortified their long term sustainability and ability to give a more personal, community orientated, quality service.
A Collection of Different Models
A number of organisations highlighted how not being registered social housing providers had benefitted their business model, enabling more latitude in how they operated, whereas others had benefitted from public investment in the sector to provide new homes several decades previous, but the combination of not being to receive any funding, the appreciation of the housing market and lacking the in-house development capacity, had made it almost impossible for smaller housing associations provide new homes at affordable rents in a highly regulated sector.
Presentations from representatives from Epic based in Stoke, and Giroscope from Hull, illustrated how their models had grown successfully focusing on refurbishing houses in lower cost areas, whilst Mission Housing developed a creative model building key worker homes with financial investment from individuals from their community targeted at Christian key workers were some examples of how different approaches were delivering homes. The caveat being unregistered housing providers allowed Giroscope and Mission the flexibility to do what they do.
Imani – The Black Led Housing Coop
Representing Imani Housing Co-op Ltd, I shared our narrative of being a beneficiary from the BME Strategy 1986-1991 over 30 years ago, remaining small, but beating all of the odds by sustaining the organisation as a vibrant cooperative utilising the rent revenue model, to become a valuable community enterprise in Wandsworth, involved in a number of social impact service delivery initiatives. Now seeking to advocate for its primary demographic on a local, regional and national basis highlighting the disproportional impact of ongoing cuts to local services and infrastructure has had in the African/African Caribbean communities and how the reduction in the provision of homes for social rent as it applies to this community and the increasing BME intersectionality as result is not an issue even being discussed.
Gateway To A New Era
Vicky Savage from L&Q presented how L&Q/BMELondon recently publicised joint venture 9 BME led London based organisations were the gateway programme of the GLA backed initiative to provide 1000 new units with which smaller housing providers in London where L&Q bring their corporate brand, expertise, infrastructure and development capacity enabling smalls to develop new homes at cost.
Vicky Savage Regional Area Managing Director, highlighted how after a number of false starts to work with smalls, to make this work L&Q had earmarked the finance, recruited the team and put in place the leadership specifically focused on not only bringing small sites to the table, but doing everything possible to support the smaller organisations to achieve the outcome. Stating that if L&Q have take back any of the properties this would be seen as a failure. Believing that this was an amazing opportunity for smaller housing associations to grow on the back of this initiative, offering an open door for any organisation interested.
This initiative is being seen as the opportunity to create a new template for partnership in the social housing sector between smaller housing providers and one of the largest of them all as one creative way to address the housing crisis. L&Q giving additional support the initiative with its charitable arm the L&Q foundation to look at other ways their charitable fund can make an impact working with the BME London group in delivering community renewal projects.
The Role Play Debates in the Evening – Juxtaposition of Big v Small – You need to big to get loans, land and recognition-staying small doesn’t work
As an evening exercise Professor Anne Power, invited the group to what was initially posited as a light hearted debate, for a bit of fun, with David Alcock, Partner and Anthony Collins Socilitors LLP and Inez Hough from the GLA making the case for, and Clare Norton, Peter Bedford HA and Chair of London G320, with Emma Leggett, Byker Community Trust, defending the small’s. The irony of these role play situation’s is that invariably, those taking on the role, more than do justice to the polarities of the debate. Contributions from the floor, whilst lighthearted a first soon turned more serious when Gil Chimon of Hill Homes, spoke to how his experience of many examples of effective partnership of Large and Small organisations in the third sector, should not only be our focus, but is our responsibility. The impact of his contribution changed the barometer of the discourse, where all involved sought to echo the sentiments made and left us with a position that both smaller and larger housing providers had not only unique attributes to bring to table gain traction in finding and addressing solutions to create new homes and serve our communities better.
Two Perspectives – The Development Process – Abi Jacobs
Abi Jacobs Head of Strategic Partnerships L&Q gave a presentation on the Development process, after outline her experience working in the private sector of the construction industry, then coming into social housing working for two larger housing associations. Sharing useful insights about the risks involved at different stages of the development process, relating to the different costs involved, financial modelling, financial appraising, technical challenges once you’ve started on site, how the risks are managed, potential legal implications and how these are expedited, operationally and legally by the larger organisation who have the internal resources, systems and established professional relationships and expertise because this is their primary function, delivering homes cost effectively. Whilst making clear business case for economies of scale the efficacy of larger HA’s who develop. Abi’s contribution immediately highlighted the challenge for smaller housing providers without the necessary expertise, to create affordable homes at scale.
For The Community
In contrast tenant directors of Leathermarket JMB Deborah Harrington and Joanna Vignola along with Kym Shaen-Carter, from Igloo Community Builders gave the impassioned case study of the Bermondsey Square development how members of a community estate in Bermondsey successfully negotiated process of community/tenant engagement. Going from initial community apathy with suspicions of a token process, becoming determined community volunteers enabled a process that gathered the momentum to overcome funding challenges, circumvent and challenge local politicians, to provide a scheme of twenty seven units with 100% funding for social rent, prescribed and design by the community. Deborah, Joanna, and Kym gave a more emotive human side, sharing anecdotes that detailing a sense of the impact of homelessness, community engagement and facilitation, integrity and transparency versus political expediency, self interest and the power dynamics of those who are paid and those who care about our communities moving forward.
Messages to and from Government
Our final session on day two of the event saw the think tank whose attendants were a mixture of board members, chief executives and other housing professionals and volunteer tenant directors from the smalls sector, reflect on why government was seeking to support the smaller social landlords and would the smalls respond. Responses were fairly ambivalent. A sort of lets suck it and see.
Inez Hough, Senior Area Manager GLA responsible for South London, spoke to the challenges of Land, Competition and Cost in London but how the GLA where seeking to support smaller HA’s by recognising the role it had to play challenging the barriers. Having had over 20 years experience in social housing, encouraged organisations to become known to others, and leverage relationships with unitary bodies.
Nigel Kersey Programme Lead – Community HousingFund MHCLG after giving a short presentation on the community housing fund, where the government is making available £163 million across England up to 2020 to 2021. Answered questions about the rationale, ease of access and the reality of whether the money would lead to delivering new homes within the short time scale.
As a participant, the insights and learning were motivational. Being immersed in seeking to create solutions in a setting where practitioners who share the commonality of serving local communities, could compare notes, methodologies and good practice was invaluable.
Back at the ranch we have already taken action being able access high level professional support that the organic networking opportunity provided. This was issue highlighted where small housing providers are subject to high level consultant fees and often receive an off shelf non specific service. The research and data references included in the resource pack provided a considered summary of the wider environment within which we work as a small black led housing cooperative, enabling our own organisation to contextualise that we have so much to offer and contribute the discourse in housing and community renewal from a perspective that is not heard.
Learning about the diversity in smaller housing provider’s business models, the different communities they serve, how they are creating value, and responding to the challenges in the ever changing external environment provided many different insights to inform our business going forward. Also having direct access to representatives from regional and central government, not only put names to faces, but gave the opportunity to recognise that we are all trying to resolve that issues but from different positions with the eco-system of social housing in the UK.
I was minded to write this review, for my own benefit to ensure that I crystallised the learning and ensure that Imani uses the learning to enable our strategic plans moving forward. I would be interested to hear from others who attended what they made of the event and how they feel about there organisation, having attended.
Chair – Imani Housing Coop Ltd.
A detailed resource pack was included in the papers, which included:-
Headlines from Community led Housing Think Tank