As many questions as there are answers…
On the morning of 4th September, 2018, a series of representatives from the worlds of PropTech, finance, agency, law, central government, and more came together in central London for a roundtable discussion organised by UKPA and hosted by FinTech company, Yoti.
- Adam Blaxter from TBL (Chair)
- Jonny Britton from LandInsight
- Aaron Down from Clubhouse Guardians
- Mike Georgeson from RentalStep
- Ivo Gospodinov from StayKeepers
- David Graydon from Classic Folios
- Jon Horton from tmgroup
- Paul Morrish from LandAid
- Richard Moss from Holtby Turner
- Nigel Newman from Raven Housing Trust
- Bobby Brittain from tmgroup
- Matt Taylor from Clifford Chance
- Nathan Toms from Infabode
- Rosemary Buckland from the Future Sectors Team (government)
- Gordon Baker from Future Sectors Team (government)
- Will Darbyshire from TDMB
- Emma Colahan from Holtby Turner
- Julie Dawson from Yoti
The subject of discussion was: Tech For Good – How can technology help solve the UK housing crisis? What follows is a top-line overview of the dynamic conversation that ensued. In order to keep the focus on what was said, rather than who said what, I have not assigned identity to any of the quotes.
Can we actually build all these homes?
Adam Blaxter, superbly chairing the conversation and keeping everyone on-point, opened things up by asking a fairly blunt question:
“Do we actually think we are going to reach 1% housing growth, year-on-year, as the government has pledged to do? And if so, how?”
Fairly quickly, it became clear that most of those around the table believed, no, we don’t need to build that many new homes, much more success can be found by repurposing the abundance of property that is already standing.
“Are we likely to build 280,000 homes? No, but we’re on way,” said one attendee, “but can’t most of the need be met by repurposing what we already have?”
It was pointed out that there are currently around 205,000 empty residential properties in the UK, waiting, if not begging, to be occupied. There problem, however, is that the majority of those empty properties are not in the areas where homes are most urgently needed. Most are found in the Northwest and Northeast, far away from areas of great demand.
“The question being asked should be, how can tech be used to open up this available stock?”
There was broad agreement on this, too, with another attendee explaining that the UK has only managed to build this many houses in a year three times since the war, and each one of those three times was a result of vast amounts of public investment. More than we are likely to see now or in the future.
“Private investment is never enough. This is especially true when you consider that private builders don’t really want to produce too many houses because that would flood the market and values would decline. The private sector wants to drip-feed the market: we need a rainstorm.”
If this is true, should we be incentivising private builders to provide more homes, especially more affordable homes?
“Perhaps, but there aren’t enough private builders with the capacity to fulfill the demand. Most are small-medium businesses who simply can’t handle the load. There are only ten private companies in the UK right delivering the stock that the government has said we need.”
Because much of the UK’s empty housing is found away from areas of great demand, it is argued by some that we need to start looking more seriously at mixed-tenure properties, developments which combine both commercial and residential units.
However, although this would open some opportunities for providing homes, mixed-tenure is always a complex business model. One attendee pointed out another potential flaw in the plan, too:
“I’m concerned that this way of thinking will result in solutions which take us back 100 years, people living in smaller and smaller spaces, crammed and cramped just so we can claim they are safely housed. This, it seems, is what converting or mixing existing office blocks will give us.”
“It’s important to ask what people actually want,” says another. “Do they want co-working by day and co-living by night?”
It’s a question that nobody around the table can really answer, but it’s agreed that, as a society, we leave our homes empty all day and our offices empty all night. This is where tech could really play an influential role. Perhaps Airbnb style platforms could facilitate empty offices to become shelters for the homeless? This would, at least, get people off the street during cold nights.
Thinking vice-versa, is there scope for affordable housing providers to increase their revenue by leasing empty space to businesses? If so, does any business or freelancer even want to work in someone else’s living room?
“We are seeing this happen more often nowadays, but it tends to be a market faced at luxury spaces and homes rather than affordable, and it tends to be individual freelancers who are looking for such spaces. And, if the suggestion is that people sleep in offices overnight, how does that work logistically?
So how can PropTech actually help?
One of the most commonly referenced housing crisis solutions is shared living, or co-living, or communal living, however you choose to phrase it.
By repurposing existing property, large units like ex-student halls or nursing homes which have shut due to failing to reach the required care standards, they can be transformed into shared living. Is that a realistic opportunity?
“The general public is genuinely concerned about empty property in their neighbourhood. It’s never a good sign, never a pretty site. So the will and the demand is definitely on our side. But, what really needs to happen is for vacancy data to become more readily available. Activating a joint, shared database is an absolute must.”
There is a problem with shared living though, which most around the table agree on: usually, such development’s are aimed at specific demographics. Sometimes it’s the retirement community, sometimes it’s young professionals, and so on. This type of generational segregation is very questionable indeed.
“Should we assume that people are just going to live how and where we tell them to? If we’re talking about tech for good, this seems a bit inhumane.”
Whether or not it is inhumane, I will leave you to decide. But, it’s certainly true that we should be encouraging intergenerational communities rather than segregation. Never in the history of civilisation have we come so close to splitting demographics as we are today.
However, building new intergenerational communities is easier said than done.
“Can you fake an organically grown community?” asks one attendee. “If so, it’s going to require an incredibly complex model.”
The Great Facilitator
“Complex” is a word that keeps popping up during this conversation.
“The solution [to the housing crisis] is a very complex recipe. But that’s to be expected: tech is rarely about big solutions. Tech is a facilitator – that’s how we should be looking at it.”
Tech is indeed a facilitator, a creator of space and possibility. The complexity arrives when you consider the plethora of elements that tech is currently required to address.
The PropTech community is responsible for, among many other things, reducing costs and increasing the speed of construction through modular building; increasing the accessibility and awareness of property guardianships so that empty properties of all classifications can be become affordable rental space; creating an open-data ecosystem where all of the essential data, from site sourcing to vacancy figures, is standardised and easily shared; democratising the house buying process with tenant passports, credit scores, and crowdfunding; helping shoulder the emotional burden of finding a home by streamlining efficiency; offering care and compassion to those most in need of shelter; incentivising housebuilders to provide more affordable homes; and rallying the government to consider changes in laws, rights, and regulations which are currently blocking many of the necessary improvements from taking place.
It’s an awful lot to ask of a relatively small industry, especially in the UK. And what makes it all even more of a spectacle is the truth that PropTech must do all of this whilst keeping one eye keenly trained on tomorrow, next year, the next decade, the next century, and beyond.
We are not creating swift solutions for passing issues, we’re creating a legacy which will influence our nation, and the world, for generations to come. This calls for fluidity, flexibility, and foresight at all times.
Oh, and at the same time of all of that, we’ve got to earn a living and take care of our own families, too. Easy.
This UKPA Tech for Good Roundtable was a real eye-opener. As a journalist simply watching and listening, I was simultaneously surprised by the scale of the issue, the depth of thought being put into it, the determination of entrepreneurs to better the world, and the continuing uncertainty of what even needs to be done, let alone the order in which to do it.
And that’s not to speak poorly of the PropTech industry, more to pay heed to the burden of being tasked with masterminding a permanent, democratic, affordable, and compassionate solution to what many will tell you is an unsolvable problem.
PropTech has already created some incredible tools, already facilitating positive change. So, even though the exact playbook is still up for debate, we can be very confident that, when working as a united front, we will soon solve that which is currently labelled ‘impossible’.
Today, however, there remain as many questions as there are answers, which leads me nicely on to this:
In order to try and find more answers, the Future Sectors branch of the UK government is running a workshop on 26th September to try and better understand how they can support startups working to solve the housing crisis – some of whom I know they made initial contact with at this roundtable. If you want to attend, please RSVP ASAP to email@example.com.
Also, the brilliant LandAid have stated that they are very keen to work with tech businesses who can help charities in this space. Most notably, they are excited to meet with anyone who can improve the process of identifying vacant properties. This is a brilliant opportunity for any PropTech company who might be able to assist. If you want more info, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Will Darbyshire, The Digital Marketing Bureau (TDMB)
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