What if..

I’ve been pondering the likely landscape post lock-down. It feels like we may be entering a new era as we are may see some major shifts in macro policies and funding priorities as politicians from across the political spectrum work together for the interest of national unity and survival.

Significant things we could see over the next few years include sustainable funding and tax strategy for Adult Social Care; NHS put on a sustainable long-term footing; the gig/low wage economy being curtailed and the living wage being adopted by all. I’m sure you can name many more you’d like to see happen.

So what about the residential development sector? How can we, along with national and local government, make a better future for the many and not the few. The sector may decide to take a longer term view on residential development, with a greater emphasis on affordable housing, the delivery genuine mixed communities that focus on people’s wellbeing.

Personally, I’d welcome seeing the self-policing of Permitted Developments Rights; that we shift the agenda to delivering well designed decent accommodation, focusing on affordability and wellbeing of tenants and leaseholders. Imagine the sector saying to government that Permitted Development Rights, as currently allowed for, is not setting a higher enough standard and consultants, developers and contractors refuse to work on any scheme that does not set a good standard of housing. Can we collectively shut down the awful business model of maximising development and operational profits with no concern about offering decent housing that meets genuine housing need? We have the power to do this.


Attainable Housing – LivShare


Earlier this month we exhibited the LivShare prototype at the ExCel centre. It will become, once fully build out, a seven en-suite room, eco-home designed by Bill Dunster (www.zerobillshome.com/livshare-home).

We were overwhelmed with warm words, feedback and suggestions of alternative uses from co-living for the elderly and inter-generational living to care worker accommodation and others besides

This prototype was built in part by students from South Essex college through the initiative https://www.zedfactory.com/zedgeneration. It aims to provide attainable housing for young people as well as secure much needed work experience in modular housing. It is now at a factory in Peterborough ready to be finished.

The plan, subject to agreements with a local council and housing provider, is for the unit to be located permanently and used to accommodate young people moving on from a hostel environment – young people in need of low rent housing as they commence their journey into employment.

Meanwhile, we explore opportunities with partners for LivShare to become a credible source of low rent housing for young people as a homeless reduction initiative, accommodation for people leaving prison, and more broadly as a new affordable co-living brand. How this will develop we will wait and see, but I am more convinced than ever that our young people, low paid employees, those on apprenticeships, or those who want to live intentionally differently in community, will find a place with LivShare going forward. As a society we need to provide attainable housing – homes that people can easily access, to meet their housing need at a price they can genuinely afford.

I am very grateful for the kind contributions of people to this initiative, those who cheer on from the side-lines and especially those who give of themselves to provide advice and support.

I promise to keep you up to date and looking forward to sharing the journey with you.


LivShare – Affordable Co-Living

This week I am launching a report about a new housing concept called LivShare. LivShare is a low rent housing product targ


eting single people under 35 on low incomes.

A flexible, modular housing concept based on purpose-built shared houses, designed to offer the best of communal living whilst at the same time creating high quality, safe private bedrooms. With a higher density townhouse model utilising efficient build systems, and off site modular construction, LivShare proposes a model offering rents that young people on low incomes can afford whilst at the same time minimising the running costs of the properties.

A LivShare model can be classed as an affordable housing product and can be delivered as part of a developer’s Section 106 contribution – it can also attract capital grants and institutional investment.

Crucially, LivShare addresses the significant housing need of single young people who struggle to access decent private rented accommodation, and for whom home ownership is unattainable. The housing need of this huge cohort of people is too often not being met by registered housing providers, the build to rent sector or government capital grant funding streams.

This report has been supported by the eminent architect practice Rogers Stirk Habour + Partners, world leading integrated infrastructure firm, Aecom and charity Commonweal Housing

Following the release of the report, I am looking for partners to develop at least one pilot.

LivShare seeks to reclaim the HMO as a tenure of choice and provide a truly affordable housing solution to the hundreds of thousands of sharers struggling with high rents and other living costs.

Message me if you will like a copy of the report which will be available after the 21st June

Its ‘precision housing’ stupid

In 2012 I started a journey of developing a low-cost, self-contained move-on accommodation model for residents moving on from YMCA hostels. Three years later, the first Y:Cube Housing scheme opened – a 100% affordable housing scheme using 36 off-site volumetric pods designed by RSH+P and built by SIG plc. At the time, there were very few other examples (apart from shipping container systems), even fewer manufacturers, and a whole load of scepticism about any low-cost housing scheme that could be designed and delivered using non-traditional methods. The Y:Cube prototype, built in 2014, though was inundated with visits from developers, funders, politicians and reporters all looking at how housing could be designed and constructed differently.

Looking back, I’d like to think that Y:Cube Housing made a crucial contribution to what is now a flourishing industry. It seems that hardly a week goes by without a new factory being announced or an even taller modular residential scheme is to be built. Mainstream house builders and developers are now utilising modern methods of construction (MMC) with major institutional investors close behind.

So what next for the sector? Well, the sector’s capacity is growing but needs further huge expansion; performance standards are being set but standardisation in design is still to be fully embedded. And we are yet to see which build systems will win the race, will light steel frame or timber/CLT be the preferred and most cost-effective system or will Structural Insulated Panels win the race. There also needs to be a shift in construction training strategy, moving away from focussing on tradition methods in order to equip a new generation of skilled labourers proficient in factory house-building.

With the significant shrinkage within the construction labour market, at a time when there’s the need to ratchet up output, factory-built housing will become the norm, no longer seen as a niche approach or a vanity initiative. More importantly I’m convinced MMC or ‘precision housing’ will be cheaper than using traditional construction methods, as the design and production process becomes more integrated along with further innovation in materials that will drive efficiencies and quicken the development process further.

As I write this blog I am supporting a couple of small housing providers develop their own affordable modular housing schemes. Since 2015 there has been a notable increase in the range of manufacturers and designers meaning these projects will benefit from further cost efficiencies which will ultimately benefit the tenants through lower rents. I’ll continue to share my experience and champion a sector which will only drive improvements for us all


Where’s the good news?

Well, first reading of the DCLG’s Funding Supported Housing paper, I am struggling to see why the National Housing Federation say it is a good outcome for the sector. Maybe it is for the sheltered housing sector, but for short term supported housing providers, which includes most supported housing provision for young people, the news looks grim.

For a provider to have all its revenue funding, including rents, to be commissioned by their relevant local authority, will undermine their future viability and autonomy. Within the paper it does though suggest housing costs can be claimed through Universal Credit. Further clarity is required.

Anyone heard of 25yr+ funding agreements in the sector? How can the government expect lenders to operate in a sector where its funding is solely tied to LA strategies which tend to work on five year cycles?  Let alone the sector trust the ring fence commitment for the funding pot to remain indefinitely, given our past recent experience. Once funding is cut there will be no obvious plan B, no other credible sustainable funding steam to turn to.

The funding pot for providers will not grow for additional provision, once its been set. Nor will it keep pace with the real costs of provision,  but will instead be reduced to fund expensive local authority administration of the fund.

The proposed Local Authority supported housing strategies may understandably focus on assisting them to meet their own statutory duties, with unpopular groups, such as young people vulnerable to significant future cuts. All providers, even where they currently are not in receipt of Supporting People funding, will be at the mercy of council commissioners, local political interference and market competition.

Finally, with the focus on two years, where is the move on accommodation for young people to move onto? The HB shared room reference rate for under 35yr olds has put a stop to most provision. Plus the proposed additional capital pot for move on accommodation is pitifully small. Also, what about current supported move on provision for young people, will this be classed as supported housing in the future?

The reality is the sector will need to plan to diversify its funding and operationally model away from supported housing in order to manage this impending huge risk. Which is where the good news may come…

Why are young people omitted from plans for new housing?

The key piece of research commissioned by local authorities, to inform their local core plans and housing strategies, is the Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) often commissioned every three years.

The DCLG state the primary objective of identifying need (via the SHMA) is to:

  • identify the future quantity of housing needed, including a breakdown by type, tenure and size;
  • identify the future quantity of land or floorspace required for economic development uses including both the quantitative and qualitative needs for new development; and
  • provide a breakdown of that analysis in terms of quality and location, and to provide an indication of gaps in current land supply.

I’ve had a look at a number of SHMAs and few, if any, adequately evidence the housing needs of young people in shared housing or set out the future demand for shared accommodation, with most references of HMOs relating to student housing.

Given that single people make up the biggest demographic in London and many other conurbations; SHMAs fail to identify the numbers of single people having to stay at their parental home or live in shared housing/HMOs. Most young people, in many parts of England, on low to average earnings can only afford shared housing,  let alone groups, such as Millennials, who are choosing this model (an example being the rise of Co-Living initiatives).  I am looking to make my own contribution to this market, with purpose built, well designed HMOs charging rents that young people on low incomes can afford.

Rather than see private landlords and financial institutions lead the market with either poor quality, unsafe shared houses, expensive Co-Living schemes, or accept the demonization of all HMO’s, but let’s instead strategically plan and fund the shared housing market. It would make a significant contribution to meeting the housing need of young people and be a credible homelessness prevention solution without the need of much public subsidy. Let social finance, institutional investment and local authority funding, be utilised to meet the housing need of young people currently forgotten by the private rented sector, HCA/GLA and Registered Housing Provider sector.

Shared housing is here to stay and it needs to be planned strategically, both its growth and regulation. This starts with sound data and more intelligent SHMAs.


Housing for the rest of us

Unsurprisingly perhaps, reflecting on my own more recent experience of being in housing need, has prompted me to look again at meeting a significant housing need that very few housing providers are dealing with.

What are the housing options for single people in need of immediate accommodation who don’t need support?  Where do people relying on income benefits, or in low paid employment, get housing they can actually afford?  What about young people starting apprenticeships or entering the work place for the first time; where do they find somewhere to call home?

There will always be the proportion of single people looking for housing who can rely on ‘bank of mum and dad’, friends or happen to earn sufficient income to secure accommodation of their choice. At the other end of the spectrum, those deemed adequately vulnerable, can also be fairly confident of being provided for in terms of accommodation.

For the rest of us, especially those earning less that the ‘average household income’, what options are there? They seem to boil down to an uncomfortable choice between paying over half your income in rent, sharing bedrooms with friends (or even strangers), or perhaps, for those that can, simply never moving out of the parental home. Higher rents, deposits, and rent in advance mean securing a rental home of their choice becomes a distant dream for the many who only feel like they are just about getting by. This significant group, where the state has let them fend for themselves, has led them to the ‘no home, low Income, no home’ cycle.

So, what are the right responses? From my perspective, we need more socially-minded developers, entrepreneurs, investors, regulators, local authorities and housing providers to rise to the challenge and commit to work together to deliver new creative solutions, or scale up existing ones. There are some great housing models out there, such as lodgings schemes, conversion of empty sheltered properties, guardian services, shared housing, rent deposit schemes, modular deployable housing, and so on.

These, though, barely scratch the surface, but do demonstrate thoughtful innovation and the encouraging, ‘can do’ attitude that is needed. The response that I am drawn to, having already developed Y:Cube Housing for YMCA, is to look at reclaiming the HMO (Housing of Multiple Occupation) as a desirable and affordable choice for single people. Using this model, rents can be kept low but at the same time offer excellence in design to ensure that, while providing the core essentials, like safe and individual bedrooms, all the best of the shared living opportunity is realised. Think Co-Living without the expensive add-ons.

Many will be aware that shared housing, or HMOs, already operate on practically every street in the country, however the vast majority exist as a result of remodelling of existing properties. Wouldn’t it be great if we could create purpose-built HMOs that are both aspirational in design whilst charging rents that even someone on a minimum wage can afford? Challenging, yes, but not impossible. Getting creative about every element of development could lead to a much-needed injection of new housing all over the country – Co-Living for the rest of us (including me!).

I’ve been working on some models and forming a ‘coalition of support’ from like minded people and organisations but still need help. I’d be really keen to grab a coffee or a quick conversation if this resonates with you too. Do get in touch.

A personal perspective

There is nothing like personal experience to inform your thinking, especially about the issues facing single people in housing need. I have worked in the housing field since 1989, predominately in the supported housing sector, and felt I had a good grasp of the issues facing the people we accommodated.

In 2015, I was faced with the reality of being a ‘person in housing need’ – trying to secure my own accommodation, that I could move into immediately and at a rent I could afford. I was fortunate enough to find places for the first few nights (at a friend’s, the office floor, a night in a Travel Lodge), which gave me more time to find a room in a shared house. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was how challenging this would be.

To start off with, the costs of renting a room these days have gone through the roof (typical shared room rents are now approaching £650 pm in London), then you have to add in the website fees to even have a hope at seeing a vacancy before it gets snapped up. On the odd occasion I spotted a room that I could actually afford, I had to see it that very day, with others being shown around at the same time, to get a chance of showing an interest. Add in to that the concerns of landlords and other sharers about whether or not they want to live with a 40 something and having to find a weighty deposit as well as rent in advance, I really had my work cut out – a room in a shared house or flat really isn’t accessible or affordable at all.

What I found really surprising, though, was the sense of worthlessness/hopelessness this process instilled in me. There I was, a ‘housing professional’, with all my so-called knowledge and insight of these issues, now facing the very challenges thousands of people in housing need experience very day. My thoughts quickly became irrational; I was becoming emotionally unstable and finding it almost impossible to focus at work.

In the end, I was fortunately offered a temporary room in a colleague’s house and another one linked me up with a local family who took me in and gave me the space I needed to make longer-term plans.

What did I learn? Well, the shared housing market can be ruthless and very expensive, especially if you have no access to savings; it is particularly geared to young professionals. Local authorities and the housing sector cater poorly for people who need immediate, and affordable, accommodation.  And the uncertainties that being in this position can bring can quickly lead to a downward spiral of emotional instability and a sense of vulnerability.

This experience has also motivated me to look again at how the housing sector can better respond to people in need of accommodation, quickly and affordably. I’ll be sharing some more thoughts, and perhaps an idea or two, in future posts –  please keep reading.

Don’t put new wine into old wineskins

Changing times, such as these, often require new words, definitions or narrative. For many the term supported housing has almost become toxic -perceived as either a welfare benefit hungry machine, which has single handed driven the nations deficit, or an unviable drain upon an organisation’s resources. Over the last few years, intensive housing management has become the buzz phrase, but we have now seen this become associated with high rent regimes; it’s not particularly liked by local authorities and can be seen as a way around cuts in grant funding -some truth there.

All too often when we read, or speak, about supported housing; it conjures up thoughts of high rents, reliance on grants, resource-hungry models. The danger is we’ve made too closer association between the term supported housing and the financial models that support it.  This is evidenced by the withdrawal of many providers from the sector following cuts in supporting people funding and providers no longer planning new services as they await the government review of funding for the supported housing sector. As an alternative, providers have turned to intensive housing management rent increases, but this can fundamentally undermine the sector’s core purposes of helping people prepare for independent living.

Last year, when I was assisting in negotiations between a provider and a local authority to take on some empty care homes for young people’s accommodation, I was trying to convey to both parties that the new use (single person accommodation for people moving on from supported housing) was neither general needs nor supported housing. Traditional definitions couldn’t adequately convey the intended role of the scheme. I ended up using the term ‘transitional accommodation’ to convey the message that the project was to provide a ‘light-touch nurturing’ environment.

I believe transitional accommodation has the potential to invoke an image of a place where people are already on that journey to living independent and sustainable lives. Such projects don’t require lots of staffing, night cover, intensive housing management or one-to-one support but more flexible, person-centred interventions and use of peer support, group work and volunteers. Crucially, such models have much reduced running costs, so can then charge lower rents; with the higher levels of affordability aiding and encouraging the transition into paid employment. ‘Transitional accommodation’, ‘general needs plus or, ‘supported housing light – whatever it’s called -should not be dependent on high rents or Supporting People funding. Yes, there will likely always be a place for traditional supported housing, accommodation for the most vulnerable in our society, but I think the majority of current supported housing clients maybe better served by transitional accommodation schemes that can act as good stepping stones to fulfilling, independent, sustainable lives.

Let’s start using a new narrative, attitude and approach in our sector, and make a positive response to the challenges our sector, clients and government face.


re:visioning supported housing

There is an ancient saying:

‘mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers; mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers; mountains are once again mountains and rivers again rivers.’

I can see the truth in this for the supported housing sector; as we see a seismic shift in welfare and supported housing policy, we struggle to see a future for supported housing. The old ways no longer fit. To be honest, many in the sector have been grappling with the reality of bloated costs and ‘sophisticated support systems’ leading to unsustainable rents and questionable outcomes. For many providers, they have exited the sector completely and I can see this tide continuing. However, for others, they are seeking to redefine supported housing in a way that hopes to avoid it being a monster that requires feeding, but allows for innovation, risk, creativity, and voluntary spirit.

We have an opportunity to redefine the sector, by embracing the reality, and return to values that we held as true in the past – freeing ourselves to do what we do best. Perhaps this way we can look forward to a better tomorrow for both providers and the people we serve.