AEOB Newsletter – September 2016
Here (at last!) is the second issue of our newsletter. We update our website, facebook pages and twitter feed regularly. But not everyone spends their life on the internet. This occasional newsletter is for shareholders, and anyone else, who prefers to keep up to date this way – whether electronically or in print.
Apologies that this one has been a while in the making, but we’ve been busy!
The basic tasks for a conventional landlord or developer are simple. Get a working building up, then sell or rent it for as much as the market will bear. Our mission means we need to do more. As well as turning a derelict building into decent accommodation, we are creating a community. That generates lots of work that is less visible than the stuff that involves people in hard hats and safety boots. As we move into detailed planning for completion – due in just a few months now – and then occupation, both the visible work and the efforts behind the scenes are moving on apace.
Visit the site, and you can see the progress on the conversion and extension at Battens lane. The old roof is completely gone, and the replacement complete. The damp course is done, old pebbledashing off and exterior insulation added. The interior partitioning is all in place, so the layout of the six apartments is now set. Electrical installation is nearly complete. Thoughts are turning to ordering fixtures and fittings, laundry equipment, kitchen units, bathrooms. Things, in short, are really coming together.
Finishing a building like this is a complicated business. For this, our first project, the less visible work has also been quite complex. It’s all very well to decide in principle that we are going to admit people in housing need into new apartments, where they will have security of tenure, fair rents and a responsible landlord. That’s the whole point of the project. But making that happen in practice demanded laying down a myriad details that will regulate how it all works when real people are living in the flats, paying rent, and getting along with each other.
So we are working hard now, on finalising all the documentation that we’ll need to make it clear how this is going to work. We need a clear framework for organising the relationship between the tenants, as it will be, and AEOB as the owner of the property.
Mainly that means researching and writing our first tenants’ agreement, which involves study of the legal aspects of tenancies, how a socially responsible landlord ought to operate, and looking closely at how other organisations like Community Land Trusts and housing co-ops manage their affairs.
We need clear wording to cover a host of day to day questions, providing for guidelines for how everything should go, and for what will happen when not everything goes quite right. We need to be able to handle use of shared facilities, repairs, rent arrears, complaints, anti-social behaviour, and to make workable policies for pets, parking, sub-letting, people who are away for long spells, dealing with marriages, deaths and break-ups, and many other things that a community will experience some time or another.
Of course, there are templates out there, and plenty of advice. But we want to make sure all the fine print is a good fit for this project, and any that follow. It’s all a lot of work to get the details right – but worth it to move beyond the simple aim of providing places for people to live to the more complicated business of helping them live reasonably together, and ensuring they fulfil their financial obligations in a way that validates our business model so that we can do it all again. We are learning as we go, and hope to finalise all this shortly so that we can consult on the precise legalities and ensure our prospective tenants know exactly what they’re signing up for.
And speaking of tenants, we have now got to the stage where we are reviewing applications from people who hope to move into Battens Lane.
This is exciting – the real result of all our work. Also sobering: reviewing the applications from people in serious housing need reminds us whay we are doing this, and brings home the responsibility of choosing. Inevitably, some people will be turned away at this point, so we thought long and hard about our selection criteria, and how to handle interviews. We also have to comply with legal requirements for documention, and have some assurance that we will receive rents when they are due. But all being well, the offers to the first batch of tenants will be going out not long after you read this – a real landmark.
We’re proud of our project, and we want to tell the world – both to lay the ground for future fund-raising and to help others do similar things in other cities.
Hence a plan to produce an AEOB handbook – which we hope to have ready in time for a publicity effort when we “launch” Battens Lane as our first completed project. So far, we have an outline, and a plan to research what we need to fill it out, pulling together our existing documentation and interviewing all the people who’ve contributed to the project. How did we do it? What have we learnt? What help might you need to do something like it?
Then there’ll be writing, design, production – probably as a printed booklet and a web offering – and distribution. Sounds like another project in itself, in fact… But it’s an important part of this stage of our work, to help spread the word and contribute to the broader conversation about housing in the UK.
And there’s a simpler tenants’ handbook to prepare, and perhaps a separate pamphlet telling the AEOB story in brief, so plenty of writing in prospect
Funding and budget news
Our share offer remains open for now – with regular ads in the Big Issue continuing to attract investment. Although we have reached our initial target, the size of our eventual loan from Triodos for the building works will depend on how much we raise from the community, and the smaller the loan, the less interest to the bank has to be covered in our business plan, so for now the position is still: the more investors the better.
In addition, some of our site costs have increased, as happens with construction projects, but not enough to pose any danger of exceeding our spending limits. And we are hoping to use some of the donations we’ve received to help pay for work on our next business plan, and a new share offer. The Board is scheduling a meeting next month (October) to plot future strategy, and consider what kind of project to go for next. Watch this space…
Meanwhile, we lost our lovely treasurer a few months back, and are managing the finances and accounting as best we can until we find someone to take her place. We are keeping things on track by dint of Board members taking on lots of extra work, but if anyone reading this knows of a likely volunteer who can help with book-keeping or financial control, do point them our way, please.
Housing policy in Bristol – moving ahead?
Marvin Rees’s victory for Labour in Bristol’s mayoral election followed a campaign that saw housing emerge as a key issue. His newly appointed housing lead, Bristol West councillor Paul Smith set out his initial ideas for easing housing supply and tackling homelessness in a thoughtful piece for the Guardian in June.
There are strong constraints, of course. As Smith says, “I have seen the devastating impact of the governmentimposed rent cut on the housing revenue account, which will be compounded by universal credit, forced sales of higher value homes and the effective removal of affordable housing from the planning regulations.”
However, he goes on to list some early actions, including, “Eighty hectares of land were removed from the marketplace, and auctions of council houses deemed too expensive to repair have been halted. We intend to use our assets more creatively, establishing our own development arm.”
Then, intriguingly, the piece suggests that, “Rather than leave homes empty, we want to work with charities to refurbish properties that can then be used to provide specialist provision, or returned to council management.”
We haven’t seen the details yet, but he enlarged on this a little at a meeting of community housing organisations a few weeks later. The Council will no longer sell land, he declared, as it considers it holds it in trust for the community – as it has done for 1,000 years!
It’ll be interesting to see what he has in mind for using community organisations to boost housing supply, and what this leads too. Specialist provision seems to indicate refurbs for people with some special need, but we are hoping it will be worth having a conversation about any broader use of this idea. There must be council properties that would lend themselves to the approach AEOB is already on the way to proving in principle at Battens Lane. We were delighted that Paul took up our invitation to visit the site, and that he was very enthusiastic.
There may be other plans afoot next year, from Bristol Community Land Trust and the Schumacher; there is even talk of a Bristol Housing Bond to help finance social housing. AEOB will only be part of the big picture, but repurposing existing buildings must be a strategy that can be taken further.