Housing Lin 17 October 2017
I have a friend called Bea. She’s 83, lives on her own in a two-bed terrace and twice a night crawls down the stairs on her hands and knees to go to the only loo in the house. Right now, our industry says to Bea either you buy a retirement apartment or you move in to a care home. But are we really expecting an 83-year-old woman to manage another house transaction, with the related Stamp Duty, conveyance, exit fees and the stress of being in a chain? Clearly that’s not a great option for her, so she continues to live in her inappropriate home until one night she will fall down those stairs, and she will end up in a care home.
What I am desperately trying to build for Bea at Birchgrove, before the inevitable happens, is a beautiful purpose built assisted living apartment that she can rent. She doesn’t have to sell her home to fund the move, she doesn’t have to stump up the SDLT, and she doesn’t have to look down the barrel of an exit fee – at the age of 83.
When I chat this through with people – be they over 65 or under – there is usually a moment where they physically recoil from me. The suggestion that they might step off the housing ladder after a lifetime of getting on and staying on, goes against everything an Englishman stands for. But is it really that awful to contemplate – for any of us? How liberating to not have responsibility for the dreaded boiler, what a relief to have only one monthly bill rather than countless utilities, all with separate pin numbers, passcodes, not-so-memorable dates and the like. I lurch from one month to the next always with something in my home that needs attending to. God, I’d love to be freed from that tyranny.
It’s not only for Bea that I work this hard, it’s also for Mike. For his entire life, Mike has been the provider. He’s raised his children, paid off his mortgage and has fulfilled his biology as a hunter gatherer. But now at 78 and with diabetes he feels like a burden to his children. He has gone from being useful to being useless and he doesn’t have an objective to get him out of bed every morning, so sometimes he doesn’t bother. His use to his children is now after his death; the wealth tied up in the family home where he now lives alone will be spread amongst his three children after he shuffles off this mortal coil. But what if he could regain some of that use, that power before his death? If he sells his family home, banks the cash and comes to live with us at Birchgrove he then becomes a provider again. He can help his grandchildren through university whilst he’s here to watch them do it. He can help his family get on the (tyrannous) housing ladder when it’s right for them, not just when he’s dead. At Birchgrove, we’re all about helping people get their power back, regain their mo-jo and how nice to have your family turn up to Sunday lunch to thank you for helping them rather than not turning up at all.
Every corporate event I go to, I leave with the sense that the industry is waiting to see whether Birchgrove can prove that PRS for older people can work in the UK.; be it from fellow providers or the banks. Yesterday I was called “brave” for taking it on. So yes, at Birchgrove we are going all in for the rental model, but that’s not to say we haven’t considered what happens if we can’t stop that physical recoil at the mention of rent. We’ve put ourselves under incredible pressure to buy land that is so special we know that we can sell the apartments for top dollar if we can’t rent them. With that as a back-stop, as I leave each event those same bankers ask me to give them a call when we’ve got to scale. So, I know that the interest in long term recurring income from the richest demographic the world has ever seen has been piqued.
PRS doesn’t suit every older person, but it does suit enough to make a significant contribution to the housing needs of this country. JLL tells me that every person we welcome in at Birchgrove enables three other housing transactions which otherwise would not be possible when older people remain in the family homes. I feel the pressure from every Bea and Mike that I meet who currently have options that don’t solve their problems and it makes me work harder to build Birchgrove faster to save them from those stairs at night and to give them back their power.