Why fit in, when you were born to stand out?

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of being on the same billing as Terrie Alafat, Boris Worrall and Chris Hobson. We were all speaking at a leader’s roundtable event organised by the CIH East Midlands on the topic of unprecedented political change. It was a great event, very well attended with some really interesting debate during the 90 minute session. More importantly, I left the session feeling hugely encouraged; lately, housing can feel like a negative sector to be in, but the senior housing professionals around the room all spoke so passionately about their work. In particular, there was no feeling of a sector that is fracturing, everyone is still looking to work together to provide the housing their area needs.

Below are the notes from my opening pitch, titled as the young leader’s perspective (though I’m not sure how much longer I can get away with claiming to be a young leader!

As we all know, the housing sector has seen huge changes in recent years, which only seem to be increasing exponentially in their scale and number. These changes are challenging our existence and as a result we’re all agonising over who we are, what we do and why.

My perspective is that it’s vital that each housing provider is crystal clear about their vision, objectives and values and stick to them no matter what. And it’s ok for each ALMO, council and housing association to take a different approach. If that means a housing association focuses on purely commercial activity going forward, maybe that’s ok too, do they deserve to be publicly criticised? Doesn’t that just further the Government’s campaign to kill off social housing? At the very least, let’s respect each other’s choices, learn from each other’s successes and failures and focus on making sure everyone has a home they can afford.

It’s deeply ingrained in our sector to compare ourselves to other providers, to make sure we are keeping up with the Jones’s (or the Kardashian’s depending on your generation) but doing it better, faster, cheaper. And now that many of us are dabbling in commercial markets, we have even more comparisons to make.

But I think sometimes it does more harm than good to compare yourself to others, whether they are similar to you or very different. In my role managing market rent properties, I’m often asked what would a private landlord do in a given situation, so that we might follow their example, but given that there are over 2 million private landlords in the UK, there are over 2 million answers to that question! My old landlord sent us a Christmas card every year and replaced our broken boiler in one working day, but I know for sure plenty of other private landlords and even social landlords don’t operate like that!

That’s not to say that comparison is always a bad thing, I think there are definitely some key lessons to learn from private landlords and the wider commercial sector, namely the effect of being financially connected to the activity/company (through personal investment, bonuses, etc) has on innovation, culture and the service customers receive.

So maybe we could all make a late New Year’s resolution to only compare the stuff that matters, that will result in everyone having somewhere affordable to live. And if we all find a different way to achieve that, then so be it, after all, not everyone is facing the same housing crisis.

I think I’m one of a handful of people working in housing that actually sought out this career path, and part of the attraction was to have a positive impact on society and to work for an organisation with strong principles and values, and I think lots of my generation feel the same. So I’ll end by saying whatever your chosen vision and values are, stick to them, don’t let others inside and outside the sector, or the Government, distract or deter you, we’re already facing plenty of change, let’s not create any more than we need to.

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To own or to rent

As it’s a new year, it seems appropriate to write a new blog post. My first in a while, actually.

My absence from the blogosphere is mainly a result of becoming a homeowner for the first time. Yes, I’ve finally achieved that Great British aspiration of owning bricks and mortar, I’m sure David Cameron is thrilled.

Unlike most, I’m a big advocate of the private rented sector and didn’t rush into the expense, restriction and responsibility of owner occupation.

For 10 years, I’ve lived in the PRS, first in student housing, then young professional shared housing, then non-shared. I’ve been fortunate to have an awesome landlord, and I mean really awesome. He sent us Christmas cards, reduced the rent when times were hard, replaced our broken boiler in one working day, let us decorate, didn’t charge fees, never increased the rent, provided furniture, gave us a rolling tenancy that lasted 6 years in the end. The list goes on.

This is how renting should be and both private and social landlords could learn a lot from my old landlord. If renting did look like this for the majority, perhaps I wouldn’t have been told about a 1000 times that rent is dead money. I was always happy to pay for the lack of repair responsibility and flexibility to move if needed. Besides, isn’t mortgage interest dead money or am I missing something?!

And finding a house to rent was so much easier than finding one to buy. This may come as a shock to those in the south, but there are some very desirable parts of Sheffield and property gets snapped up. Over the last 12 months, we’ve endured 20+ viewings, using our allotted 15 minutes to decide if we should spend our life savings, before the next of about 20 others came to do the same thing. We’ve offered over the asking price, sometimes by a £1000, sometimes £2000, one time a lot more, only to be out bid.

Meanwhile, friends of ours that had bought a couple of years earlier were enjoying the rising house prices and recalling how it wasn’t that competitive when they were buying. It was very tempting to give up the search or settle for whatever we could get our hands on, just so the ordeal would be over and we could finally say this woodchip wallpaper is all ours.

But we held out and got what we were looking for, albeit we had to offer over the asking price. But being a home owner isn’t enough is it? We have to be the owner of a perfect home, so despite many conversations that we would make do with the current tired decor and steadily improve one room at a time, we’ve spent the last three months pulling down a wall, replacing a roof, plastering and fitting a new kitchen. I was so happy the day we had a functioning kitchen sink and the days of doing the washing up in the bathroom sink were over!

I’m so grateful for everything our landlord did for us, renting from him gave us time to save up a 15% deposit and not rely on Government schemes, the bank of Dad or having to stretch ourselves to buy with a 5% deposit and be burdened with a huge monthly mortgage repayment. I know others are in a very different boat though. Wouldn’t it be great if the Government focused on providing a housing market that provides the different solutions we need during the different phases of our lives, rather than just pushing people to burden themselves with home ownership as quickly as possible?

Anyway, I’ve got woodchip to strip :)