Soft Cities

Colm Lacey - Soft Cities

Adapting to life under lockdown

First published in Housing Today, 29/04/20 – https://www.housingtoday.co.uk/comment/how-brick-by-brick-is-adapting-to-life-under-lockdown/5105765.article.

Well to put it mildly, these are challenging times for housing. No sooner had had the Gordian knot of Brexit started to unravel a little than a new international conundrum of epic proportions arrived.

While everyone in the housing sector has had to rapidly adapt to this most unexpected of challenges, the nature of the response has by no means been consistent – apart of course from the obligatory posting of pictures of team meetings being held on Zoom. Housing associations have focussed on their residents first, temporarily redirecting efforts from new business towards supporting their more vulnerable tenants. Many major housebuilders have shut up shop almost entirely, undoubtedly with as much of an eye on the economic storm to come as the public health one already with us.

But while the pandemic represents an unprecedented shock to the housing world, it also offers a perversely welcome reason to take stock. The word ‘home’ has been mentioned more by those in power in recent weeks than at any time in living memory, suggesting that at the very least the political classes have been forced into a more thorough appreciation of housing as shelter, a primary social good. Covid has put the ‘crisis’ back into ‘housing crisis’ and one simply can’t imagine that future national housing policy will remain unchanged by the last few months.

Covid has put the ‘crisis’ back into ‘housing crisis’ and one simply can’t imagine that future national housing policy will remain unchanged by the last few months.

For local authority owned housing companies, much has changed. From a position where many had begun to reach a critical delivery momentum pre-Covid, all of a sudden the fundamentals of supply and demand are shaken and business as usual is simply not an option.

More generally, local authorities have been forced to adapt rapidly to this new normal and borne one of the heaviest loads (as ever) in continuing to provide much-needed services to their residents. Many employees have been repurposed from their regular roles into ones which have a greater impact on addressing the socio-economic challenges posed by the pandemic such as homelessness, social care and providing support for emergency workers. The key guiding principle has been one of practical flexibility and protecting those services which are needed most, however difficult this may be.

And so it should be with their housing companies. While there are many different flavours of local authority owned company, a common thread tends to be the servicing of local housing demand, particularly for those in greatest need. It is perhaps for this reason that the focus for many of them over recent weeks has been one of adaption to circumstance and a redoubling of efforts to ensure that homes get built.

Life at Brick By Brick

For us at Brick By Brick, this has very much been the case and, subject to absolute assurance that we can genuinely provide safe ways of working for all concerned, we have sought to continue where possible with delivery and sales activity. Of course, this has demanded significant changes to our normal way of doing things.

For example, with regard to public consultation and engagement, a particular challenge during lockdown, we have tested a range of remote processes to complement our regular engagement techniques, many of which were already partly online-based. This has included numerous Zoom and Teams sessions with a variety of stakeholders and a ‘virtual public meeting’, with a full professional team presenting design proposals to a public audience, and a real time questions and answers session.

This has included numerous Zoom and Teams sessions with a variety of stakeholders and a ‘virtual public meeting’, with a full professional team presenting design proposals to a public audience, and a real time questions and answers session.

With regard to sales, our key aim is to address challenges in progressing purchases, whether it be because of an inability to view properties in person or because of temporary financial fluctuations. We had already been focussing heavily on affordable housing tenures within our pipeline and have now further limited the number of units we have for sale at any one moment in time, giving us time to concentrate on selling fewer separate developments.

The lending context is ever-changing and we are finding that lenders are updating their offers to new borrowers, particularly first time buyers with small deposits, on a regular basis. There is still significant funding available from a wide variety of high street lenders, although it is likely that valuation uncertainty will be present a key challenge going forward.

For our part, we are taking fee-free reservations for our homes, giving prospective purchasers the opportunity to reserve our properties and undertake further research pending their ability to see them in person. For any existing purchaser who has fallen into financial difficulty as a result of Covid-19, we are seeking to work with their individual circumstances to help them to progress. This may involve offering specialist mortgage advice, allowing longer periods of fee-free reservations or looking at other options for purchase from our portfolio such as Help to Buy or Shared Ownership.

To address viewing challenges we are offering Whatsapp video viewings, and potential buyers can book in a slot with one of our sales team and be taken on a real time video tour of the property, explaining the various features and offering them the opportunity to ask questions. We are also undertaking digital sales launches, such as our recent Instagram Live launch of our Pump House development in South Norwood, which included a live tour of the apartments by our sales team and a remote narration by the scheme architects to give potential buyers a better understanding of the design thinking behind the scheme.

The future

Of course, what is certain is that all of this will change. Already there is much talk of recession and recovery, of stimulus packages and V-shaped curves. And while it is perhaps an interesting diversion, if we are honest the specifics are simply not knowable. This pandemic has been an unprecedented event for all sectors of the economy which followed on from a similarly unprecedented period of political and societal change. If all the economic variables are in play – unemployment, taxes, salaries, interest rates, savings, land use patterns, government subsidy – there is simply not enough firm ground from which to view the horizon. Todays economic forecasts are likely to be as inaccurate as any pre-pandemic ones.

This pandemic has been an unprecedented event for all sectors of the economy which followed on from a similarly unprecedented period of political and societal change.

What we can be sure of is that the core housing issue in this country has not changed: there is a huge demand which is not being met by supply. When you factor in the multiple human stories which have been highlighted by Covid-19 – imagine, if you haven’t already, spending your lockdown as a single mother with children in a temporary accommodation bed and breakfast room miles from family or even familiar surroundings – then surely it is incumbent on all of us in the sector to continue as best as we can, and be ready for recovery, whatever and whenever that it is. Isn’t it?