All handbacks great and small: achieving vacant possession

September 27, 2021

When the time comes for us to wrap up a project and hand the building back to its owner, we build on a huge amount of work that happens throughout a project’s lifespan. 

In this month’s blog, we take a look at some of our most recent handbacks in Shoreham-by-Sea, Lewisham and Whitechapel. Although the buildings may be diverse in size and type, the process we follow to mitigate risks, review our processes and achieve vacant possession is the same, and each project is awarded the same care and attention to detail that we demonstrate throughout our work.

Mitigating handback risks from the start

Planning for vacant possession isn’t just something we do when a property owner gives us 30 days’ notice – it’s considered right from the start of a project. To mitigate potential risks we set clear expectations with the client and ensure that we house only the most responsible guardians.

Housing responsible guardians

In Shoreham-by-Sea in Sussex, for example, we agreed on a small, short-term project with Southern Housing Group to help protect residents in an emptying estate. 

We knew from the start that our services would be needed for six months during the estate’s decant period. Like all of our guardians, the four that were placed in Shoreham-by-Sea were aware of the temporary nature of their housing with us and had appropriate move out plans for the end of their guardianship. As a result, we provided an efficient, successful handback within the agreed timeframe. Southern Housing Group commented that “there was clear communication and expectations set, which meant it [the handback] all went smoothly.” 

A flexible approach to notice periods

Whether in a development or community project context, timelines for a property’s next steps can be hard to pin down, and unforeseen circumstances can often result in plans being pushed back. Covid-19 has proved to be an obstacle to many in the housing sector and beyond.

In Lewisham, we partnered with London Borough of Lewisham and Grove Park Youth Club Building Preservation Trust (BPT) to take care of a decommissioned youth club. The newly renovated youth club reopened its doors on 26th July 2021, thanks to the work of Grove Park Youth Club BPT and the voluntary hours contributed by our Grove Park guardians.

The flexibility of our 30 day notice period allowed us to accommodate changes to the proposed timeline when reopening was pushed back due to Covid-19. Despite plans being delayed, our partners had the reassurance, through clear communication and regular review meetings, that our team could return the newly-renovated building on time. 

The handback process: how we achieve vacant possession

When we are given notice and the time comes to hand a property back, there are several strands to take care of: 

i) guardian management

ii) security management, and 

iii) account management

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Guardian management

Our team of relationship coordinators, who are in charge of guardian and property management throughout a project’s lifespan, play a key part in property handbacks.  

Before our guardians receive their formal notice via email, our relationship coordinators call them to discuss move out plans and provide support where appropriate. We always give at least 28 days’ notice before a guardian’s move out date and, where possible, rehouse suitable guardians in our other available properties. Some of our guardians from our Whitechapel property in east London, for example, were rehoused in self-contained flats in the London Docklands area which meant they were close to their previous neighbourhood, and were able to continue their volunteering nearby.

As move out day approaches, we keep in regular contact with our guardians to make sure they are preparing for their move and to assess any potential overstay risks. We also increase our presence on site and increase the regularity of our property inspections to address operational issues and get a general sense of the security of the area. The safety of both the guardians and the emptying buildings are our top priority and we aim to mitigate any risks early. 

On the day of handback, the relevant relationship coordinator and members of our field team will be on site to support guardians with moving out and ensure the property is clear and in good condition. 

  2. Security management

At some of the properties we protect, additional security measures may have been  employed alongside the housing of property guardians. In this case, during the handback, measures such as Sitex or alarms will either be removed by Dot Dot Dot or, if hard security is still needed, transferred to the responsibility of the client. 

At a housing estate we occupied in Shoreham-by-Sea, there was increasing concern about anti-social behaviour in the area and so extra security measures were employed to protect the estate after handback. We transferred the properties to Vigilance, an ethical security company who provide hard security services, who would continue to protect the estate.

  3. Account management

We settle any existing bills as agreed in the service agreement up to the date of handback, and close down any council tax or utilities accounts for which we have had responsibility.

Reviewing our processes

Finally, once vacant possession is achieved and the building is handed safely over to its owner, we send an in-depth end of project review and client evaluation form. We are committed to achieving a consistently high level of service, total compliance with regulation and safety requirements, and a tangible social impact. 

Project reviews include an overview of our activities and provide our clients with transparency around our work. In particular, we are able to share the good news about our guardians’, and by extension our client’s, contribution to social impact in their communities.

If you want to find out how we can cater to your empty property needs, sign up to our newsletter, Meanwhile Thoughts, or contact us at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com.

When “security” isn’t actually that secure

February 19, 2021

From our Chief Executive, Peter Brown

Much of our work supports property owners delivering estate regeneration programmes. The complexity and phasing of these schemes often means they take many years. As a result, they tend to be organised in phases across multiple blocks within a wider regeneration zone – with different areas needing to be secured on a phased basis. But security without people involved can mean a double whammy of both expense and ineffectiveness.

Due to the phased nature of regeneration activity, property guardians can be a very useful solution, because the number of properties that arise as empty at any point in time can be hard to predict in advance. A local authority or housing association will want to have a strategy that is flexible and which can mesh carefully alongside its existing regeneration plans. 

Another consideration for local authorities can be the need to use regeneration properties to support homeless families or those in acute housing need, particularly when the regeneration timeframes change and properties are available for longer than initially thought. Property guardianship has the flexibility to allow this because guardians are temporary and can move out with relatively short notice, in ways that other strategies like decommissioning a property and boarding it up do not.

We have seen and worked alongside a variety of security / deterrent measures – some more effective than others…and none, by themselves, as effective as having people on the ground visibly using the property.

Metal void property security screens on doors and windows are common and can be helpful for physical security – particularly when a property is at the end of its life and has been decommissioned. However, they do serve to advertise the fact that a property is empty, so can be counter-productive if owners are worried about attracting ASB.

Remotely-monitored rented alarms specifically designed for void properties have the advantage over security screens by being discrete and not advertising a property as empty.

And there’s always the option of disguise! If the practical risk of damage or unauthorised access is low, then disguising properties can be surprisingly effective. We have clients who have used a simple kit: curtains, a few pot plants and perhaps a light on a timer can go a long way.

It’s important to note that these measures certainly can’t bring any guarantees that properties will stay safe and secure and for an extended period of time. In many cases we’ve seen clients disappointed when they try these measures without property guardianship alongside them, because they have invested money in security only to find it was less effective than they had hoped. 

There can be a range of problems when property is left void, including unauthorised access of the property, break-ins, property being used for unlawful activity and metal stripping and theft. Only the human solution of property guardians can bring both the confidence that a property will be cared-for and protected through occupation.

Tailoring a management plan with A2 Dominion in Oxford

February 11, 2021

Gibbs Crescent is an estate made up of studios and 1-bed flats, located by Osney Marina in west Oxford. Since July 2019, we have worked with A2 Dominion, a housing association with a social purpose, to house property guardians whilst the estate prepares for a period of regeneration.

We currently house 19 guardians across 17 flats in the estate. Since our occupation in 2019, Oxford guardians like Beth have contributed 3,691 hours to good causes. 

A set-up plan to meet individual needs

When a client comes to us with an empty asset, their list of priorities will rarely exactly match that of the clients that have come before them. We manage a varied portfolio of properties and the clients we work with are just as varied. With that in mind, we know that taking a ‘one size fits all’ approach will not deliver the best results. We can call upon our previous experience of what has worked well in the past in a variety of projects to propose a tailored management plan that suits a new client’s specific needs.

What A2 Dominion needed at Gibbs Crescent

At Gibbs Crescent, it was important to A2 Dominion that we be sensitive to existing residents on the estate. In any project where there are existing residents to consider, it is vital to hand properties over to Dot Dot Dot in an appropriate way that will not disturb the residents or attract any negative attention. We initially took on 12 flats so as not to over-occupy, expanding to 17 in 2020. In this way, the introduction of guardians to Gibbs Crescent was manageable for both Dot Dot Dot and A2 Dominion, as well as not inconveniencing residents. 

A2 Dominion are particularly happy with their experience of using Dot Dot Dot guardians to secure their empty buildings, and said about their work with us: “Our experience with the guardians has been very positive. Once the void properties have been accepted there is very little involvement from our side. Having the guardians in the void properties has given us the peace of mind we needed whilst preparing to redevelop the estate. The guardians have been invaluable as they have enabled us to identify leaks, which we would have been otherwise unaware of and would have potentially caused structural damage if left undetected. They have also made us aware of some anti-social behaviour on the estate and have helped to maintain a number of the small private gardens in the empty properties, even working alongside some of the remaining residents to grow their own vegetables.”

A central part of our model for property guardianship is to only house well-vetted, responsible guardians who are interested in volunteering in their local community; this ensures that they will be sensitive to their surroundings and the other people that live there. It is also important for us to house a diverse range of guardians, and we are particularly happy to be able to house people that are local to the area. Our Oxford guardians vary greatly in age, from 21 to 62, and 14 were living locally in Oxford and two in Oxfordshire before their guardianship. 

As we offer a flexible and open-minded approach, we are able to better collaborate with our clients to allow them to spend their valuable time and resources on the things that matter to them most. In the case of Gibbs Crescent, we worked together to develop a triage process, in which responsibility was clearly divided between Dot Dot Dot and A2 Dominion. In many cases, projects are time sensitive because empty properties can pose a security risk. We are committed to fast service delivery in Oxford, aiming to turnaround the triage process within two weeks. You can see the flow of the triage process below. 

 

 

A flexible approach to property management

As our Head of Services, Mark Ackroyd, explores in his ‘On the ground’ blog, understanding at the outset how property management will operate across the lifetime of a guardian contract is critical to delivering maximum benefits for property owners. That’s why we offer a flexible approach, which can be modified and calibrated to our clients’ changing needs.

As the property industry was hit by the emergence of Covid-19 in 2020, many in the sector had to adjust to a new normal and in some instances redevelopment plans were put on hold. It is at times like these that meanwhile residential use is so vital – to avoid the plight of empty buildings which can so often be empty for longer than intended due to factors out of the client’s control. As was the case with many of our clients’ plans, redevelopment timelines at Gibbs Crescent were pushed back to keep everyone working as safely as possible. We were able to offer a solution by taking on another phase of flats on the estate, growing from the 12 properties we managed in 2019 to 17 properties in 2020. 

Because we build flexibility into our approach, we can modify our practices instead of having to overhaul them completely, and we are resilient when met with obstacles such as the Covid-19 crisis. Our agile model allows us not only to meet our clients’ needs, but also to adapt to new challenges when they arise. 

If you’d like to find out more about our agile approach to property management, you can sign up to our newsletter here or get in touch with us at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com.

On the ground: Guardianship that meets your needs

December 18, 2020

From our Director of Services, Mark Ackroyd

In the first of our ‘On the ground’ series, we explore some of the details of how our service works. In future articles, we’ll look in more detail at how we set up, operate and demobilise our service in different settings. In this article, we describe how Dot Dot Dot creates the right division of property management responsibilities for each client.

How to prepare a property for safe occupation can often seem like the most important question. It’s a critical step (both practically and financially), and we will be exploring the setup phase in future articles. But it is important to think more widely about how property management will function across the lifetime of a guardian contract; in many projects, this is the critical factor that helps guardianship deliver the maximum benefit to property owners. From my experience, this is one of the most pressing questions for clients who have to juggle existing property management budgets and pressures.

 

Matching contract responsibilities to client needs

At Dot Dot Dot, we think it is critical to understand not just the properties, but also the needs and operating environments of our clients. The following examples of issues or pressures are likely to be familiar to all property owners, but we find that each client has a unique set of priorities:

  • Mitigating fixed costs (e.g. council tax, utilities, maintenance contracts)
  • Protection against unauthorised occupants or vandalism
  • Removing day-to-day property management demands (e.g. access, security, repairs)
  • Handling core FM functions such as managing a planned maintenance programme
  • Buffering against occasional costs (e.g. roof repairs, flytipping)
  • Controlling long-term dilapidation and disrepair 
  • Reputational or political pressure around property use

Our goal with any client is to offer contract options that are a good match for their specific needs. We can customise and adjust this very finely, but below are some examples of common approaches.

Example 1: Like a lease, but not a lease

Under this model, clients hand over properties at a basic standard, and Dot Dot Dot takes on all of the in-life compliance, repair and management responsibilities. This includes the costs, repairs and maintenance that would normally fall to a leaseholder. Property owners or asset managers retain responsibility for block level maintenance (though we can often assist).

This structure has similarities with a leaseholder arrangement, but there is no lease required. Clients can end our service contract with 30 days’ notice. This model works well in many residential settings, and is particularly useful during ongoing decants with an uncertain pipeline of void properties.

Example 2: Shared management

In larger buildings (commercial or residential), many clients wish to retain their own PPM and compliance regimes. One solution is to share the ongoing management with Dot Dot Dot. We can take on the on-site operations and daily FM responsibilities at the property, including responsive repairs. In major assets, this might include establishing suites of operating procedures and monitoring regimes.

By working with existing safety systems and regimes, we can simplify the cost structure and workload of our client. This leaves them free to focus on predictable upkeep, and on securing the next phase of the building’s life. This is a collaborative approach for hands-on clients. It can be a great solution for complex assets where owners or asset managers want to solve security or FM problems, but need close control of financial and operational risks.

Example 3: Turnkey property management

One of the simplest contract options is for Dot Dot Dot to take on the full breadth of property management. We’ll develop a full management and occupation plan, allowing us to take care of all compliance, maintenance and management in line with the client’s needs.

Clients may choose to take an arm’s length approach and to rely on our reporting and reviews to keep in touch with their property. Others might remain closely involved in monitoring and decision-making. Armed with a detailed understanding of our client’s needs and of the property, Dot Dot Dot can often help clients to navigate uncertain development or sales timelines by assisting with medium-term asset management decisions or projects such as minor works.

This is a good option for clients with multiple competing priorities. It allows owners and asset managers to put assets ‘on hold’, while being reassured properties are secure, managed and maintained until needed.

Picking the right approach

Owners and asset managers with experience of guardianship may have a clear view of the service they require, but they do not need to decide in advance which approach will best support them. 

By sharing their priorities and needs, clients enable Dot Dot Dot to identify the right structure. Although guardianship is always at the heart of our service, we recognise that a “one size fits all” approach will limit the value we can offer. Instead, we believe in matching our service to the circumstances and needs of each client.

Next in ‘On the ground’ – how we mobilise in large and complex properties.

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