Providing reassurance to residents in Shoreham-by-Sea

August 18, 2021

We added another seaside location to our portfolio in December 2020 when we partnered with Southern Housing Group, a not for profit housing association, in Shoreham-by-Sea. As Southern Housing Group relocated existing residents of The Mannings estate, Dot Dot Dot took on four flats in late December, housing four guardians for the duration of the six month project. 

A greater sense of safety for existing residents

The Mannings project was unusual in that we were brought in towards the end of the residents’ rehousing. Southern Housing Group had grown concerned that there was one remaining family in an emptied area of the estate that had grown increasingly vulnerable to ASB. We knew from the outset that Southern Housing Group needed to secure the properties quickly. Our experience of housing guardians alongside vulnerable residents and commitment to understanding both the Group’s and the residents’ needs made us best placed to take on the project.

Southern Housing Group’s key consideration was the safety of their residents. Like Dot Dot Dot, they exist to help the communities in which they work, and our aligned values made a strong foundation for the partnership. Residents from the estate were involved in key stages of the selection process, allowing them to have a say in who was appointed.

It was important to Southern Housing Group that any new neighbours would not only be responsible but well-managed. As part of our proposal, we included a profile of Jess, Dot Dot Dot’s relationship coordinator (RC) in charge of property and guardian management at The Mannings, to provide reassurance and a personal touch. With the lowest relationship coordinator to guardian ratio in the sector, our RCs each look after 75 guardians, allowing them to develop supportive relationships and address any issues effectively. 

We also made it clear to our prospective guardians that it was important they built a good relationship with remaining residents in the block. We build good neighbourliness into our model because we know that our guardians, by virtue of their volunteering (each guardian volunteers for 16 hours per month for good causes), make great neighbours and responsible temporary residents.

Our agile approach at Shoreham-by-Sea

We were brought onto the project at The Mannings to provide an effective short-term solution for Southern Housing Group, who needed not only to ensure the safety of the emptying estate, but the safety of their residents as quickly as possible.

Our agile approach allowed us to set out a quick setup plan, bringing four properties up to standard and moving our first guardians in by the end of January, just a month after signing the management agreement. It is testament to the dexterity of our approach and the hard work of the Dot Dot Dot team that we were able to take on a project over Christmas, at the start of a new lockdown and away from our London headquarters with such a quick turnaround.

As we had come onto the project at a late stage in the rehousing process, it was also vital that we could ensure a smooth handover once our service was no longer needed, six months after we moved our first guardian in. Southern Housing Group were impressed with our service, commenting that “Dot Dot Dot were a pleasure to work with from start to finish. All departments and officers were helpful, understanding, and knowledgeable. We didn’t have any issues with the property hand back and there was clear communication and expectations set, which meant it all went smoothly.” 

We set out expectations right from the start, offering transparency and giving our clients peace of mind that we can guarantee vacant possession within 30 days of being given notice, which was particularly important given the short-term and sensitive nature of The Mannings project.

Introducing additional security: Vigilance

As Southern Housing Group continued to rehouse residents in different areas of the estate, more areas started to become vulnerable and there were concerns over an increase in ASB. Due to the condition of the properties, guardianship was not a viable option, but we recommended Vigilance, an ethical security company, to provide hard security services at the estate. Vigilance employs ex-Armed Forces personnel to help them reintegrate back into the workforce, and their commitment to social value both through their work and support for the Gurkha Welfare Trust make us proud to partner with them. 

Our commitment not only to our clients’ needs but also to existing, often vulnerable, residents makes us best placed to navigate sensitive contexts and complex needs in estates like The Mannings. We work closely with our clients through often changing and challenging circumstances, offering alternative solutions like Vigilance in addition to providing property guardianship with purpose. Despite The Mannings project’s short lifespan of six months, we were still able to deliver approximately £608 worth of social value, alongside great neighbours and a greater sense of safety for the remaining families. 

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

Dot Dot Dot…10 years and counting

June 23, 2021

Dot Dot Dot chief executive, Peter Brown, reflects on what he’s learnt after moving from a housing association to work for a social enterprise.

So Dot Dot Dot is 10 years old…and I’ve been part of it for seven of those years. The first time I heard about Dot Dot Dot was in about 2012 when someone in my network mentioned that someone he knew had started a property guardianship social enterprise. That turned out to be Katharine, who had recently started her social enterprise and was looking for properties to house people who did great volunteering. The concept has been proven with some early successes, but more properties were needed. 

At that time, I was working for the local authority housing organisation, Tower Hamlets Homes. Like most housing providers of that size, we had a small number of properties that couldn’t be used for longterm local authority tenants. I was looking for a solution that was better than just leaving the properties empty and hoping for the best, which had been the strategy up to that point. Having people who also volunteered whilst looking after the properties met a business need, because it cut risk and costs, and gave long-term tenants great neighbours. It made my housing management colleagues feel good that properties were being put to a good use by working with an organisation that was innovative as well as trustworthy. 

Because I worked for a client before I came to work at Dot Dot Dot, I got to experience the full value of what happens when you partner with an organisation that is purposeful, exists for all the right reasons and has a clear, socially responsible approach to doing business. Perhaps it’s unusual to switch from a housing provider to supplier, but many of the values that housing organisations hold true are shared by Dot Dot Dot, The way that work is carried out has changed over the years, but the Dot Dot Dot business model, our desire for impact and the commitment we have to good results for everyone hasn’t altered.

I have always been a fan of the social enterprise model. To my mind, they occupy that space somewhere between purely commercial organisations and fully mission-driven charities, and try to take the best bits of each, aiming to create something powerful, purposeful and, crucially, sustainable. It’s been a pleasure to be part of Dot Dot Dot’s journey this far and to get to work with so many great clients, colleagues and guardians over the years.

Most of my career before I joined Dot Dot Dot was in the public sector, and for organisations much larger than Dot Dot Dot. When I contrast what it’s like to lead Dot Dot Dot with those earlier professional experiences, there’s something quite freeing about organisations like ours that are smaller and able to be nimble. At Dot Dot Dot, we are very focused on doing the right things for our clients and those we house, and increasingly we will be focusing our efforts partnering with clients who we think will enable us to do our best work. At Dot Dot Dot we are trying to do one thing – provide housing that makes it easier for people to do good – and everyone in the team wants to do this and to find ways to do it well. 

It’s also good to be able to stay connected with people working in all kinds of housing organisations – the big, the small, the specialised, as well as the more general. Through our careful choice of guardians who want to volunteer, and our diligent management approach, we have always made sure that we can add value to our clients’ work and projects. We know that we get our strongest feedback when we are working in situations where choices about what guardians are on site and how they are managed matter the most. These situations commonly are the more complicated regeneration and development programmes, and bigger buildings in the areas where property owners have a long term stake and ongoing interest. They are often settings where clients have sensitive projects and often with longer-term residents closeby.

Another reflection is that I’m more certain than ever about how vital a brilliant team is. Dot Dot Dot has a great team of people working for it – with its Board supporting the exec – and the collective value of the team’s commitment, energy and skills is immense. We couldn’t achieve what we have over the last 10 years without our people.

Over the years, the way we have done our work has of course changed – we have more staff, we have evolved and improved how we work and, as we have become bigger, we have become more professionalised and created more specialised roles. When I began at Dot Dot Dot, we could travel to all of the properties in our portfolio by bike (or bus if it was raining!), since they were all in East London. We aren’t so local anymore – we have properties throughout London and the south east, as well as the south coast, Oxford and Cambridge and Manchester – but the commitment we have to our work, our desire to create a positive impact and our sense of values has not changed at all…and hopefully won’t do in the next 10 years.

Working with property developers across the country to care for empty buildings and the communities around them

May 20, 2021

With our deep understanding of working in large regeneration contexts, it is unsurprising that some of our client list is made up of housing associations and local councils. Yet the reality is that we have collaborated with a wide variety of clients with varying needs, and we have a broad experience of working with property developers to provide vacant property management through housing guardians, and support their redevelopment processes. This breadth of experience is what makes our model so successful – we are able to draw on all of our past experiences to deliver the best service for our clients.

In this month’s blog, we will be taking a look at how this manifests in our partnerships with property developers, in particular in Marylebone, Cambridgeshire and Purley. We explore how our experience of working with different types of building and a diverse client base has given us the knowledge to best support our clients, not just in their vacant property needs and redevelopment plans but in stakeholder relationship building and fulfilling their CSR objectives.

Supporting relationships with stakeholders

For any client looking to secure an empty building, the needs of all stakeholders – be that local residents, councils or planning authorities – must be taken into account. For property developers in particular, this is key when asking for planning permission from the relevant authorities. 

Working with a social enterprise is valuable for property developers because it can help maintain strong relationships. In 2018, we started working with Dorrington to secure an empty property with plans for redevelopment in Marylebone. Dorrington’s plans were dependent on planning permission from Westminster Council, and thus it was essential that they maintain a good relationship with the council in the interim. 

Due to our holistic approach, we were able to work closely with Dorrington and ensure that the property was well looked after, secure and ready for council inspections.  We were also able to use our varied experience of working with councils to support relationship-building with Westminster.

In Purley, where we worked with Peer Group to secure a large commercial property, we agreed that there would be staff presence on site once a week to provide access to third parties. Maintaining good relationships with third parties ensured that essential works could be carried out to support the redevelopment process, and Peer Group were able to allocate time and resources elsewhere.

A flexible approach

Flexibility is a key component of our work at Dot Dot Dot. For property developers in particular, redevelopment plans can have unknown timeframes and plans can change quickly, so long-term commitments are not always possible. 

In Cambridgeshire, we have partnered with This Land to secure a variety of properties, including residential flats, farmhouses, an education centre and former student accommodation. When plans for the student accommodation came to fruition, we were able to ensure a smooth hand back within 30 days. At the start of each project, a Relationship Coordinator is assigned to deal with any guardian and compliance issues, and this ensures that there is a staff member to manage the hand back process at the end of the contract’s life.

In Cambridge, Marylebone and Purley, our flexible approach to property management and an efficient hand back process ensured that This Land, Dorrington and Peer Group were able to move forwards with their redevelopment plans on the timescale they wanted. 

Supporting our clients’ CSR objectives

This Land has an interest in building social value into their development plans, and we have worked closely with them to support their CSR objectives, including signposting our guardians to voluntary work with homeless people. All of our guardians commit to volunteering for good causes for 16 hours each month, 

Not only do we offer effective security for empty buildings, but we deliver social value in the communities that surround them in line with our clients’ values, and support them in spreading the word to their stakeholders.

Whatever the project – whether large or small, residential or commercial, CSR strategy or not – our extensive experience of working within the public sector bodies bears fruit when working with private developers, because we are so attuned to the positive impact our guardians have on the communities in which they live.

 

If you would like to find out more about how we can support our clients, you can get in touch with the team at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com.

Creating social impact with London Borough of Newham and Civic in east London

March 16, 2021

Since 2016, Dot Dot Dot has worked alongside London Borough of Newham to house a total of 159 property guardians in 46 properties awaiting regeneration across east London. Beyond the invaluable work we do to manage and secure empty properties in the area, our mission to create social impact in the communities in which we work has given us the opportunity to partner with London Borough of Newham and Civic to repurpose empty spaces for community use.

Aligned values

Like Dot Dot Dot, Newham are also committed to creating social impact through their Community Wealth Building initiative. Community wealth building, according to CLES (the national organisation for local communities), is ‘a new people-centred approach to local economic development, which redirects wealth back into the local economy, and places control and benefits into the hands of local people’. Championed by Newham mayor Rokhsana Fiaz, Newham’s commitment to community wealth building aims to address poverty levels in the borough by economically empowering local communities. 

Almost half of Newham’s homes are in the private rented sector, where rents rose 56% between 2012 and 2019, and a huge 75% of salaries in Newham are put towards rent. At Dot Dot Dot, our commitment to affordable housing in areas where local people are priced out by high rents has provided a strong foundation for our partnership with the borough council.

Supporting relationships with stakeholders

Aside from delivering residential meanwhile projects for empty properties, there are many other ways we can support our clients. In 2017, Newham council reached out to Dot Dot Dot for some guidance on a potential meanwhile project on a piece of land earmarked for regeneration.

In the short term, they were sensitive to the possible disruption for residents, and wanted to utilise empty spaces in Custom House to bring the community together. Beyond our work to secure empty properties for Newham, we have also been able to support relationships with stakeholders, be it current residents or fostering new partnerships with other meanwhile organisations. In 2017, we used our expertise in the field to set out two proposed organisations that Newham could work with to repurpose the land, with Dot Dot Dot as the junior partner. By 2018, Newham had cemented their partnership with Civic, who are ‘supporting the new development of civic infrastructure’ in east London. 

Social impact in Newham

Civic’s work to reutilise disused spaces as community hubs mirrors our mission to repurpose empty buildings as housing and give back to the community through volunteering. As part of their transformation of the empty space at 3-9 Freemasons Road, Civic have encouraged community involvement in the project through volunteering. 

Dot Dot Dot has been able to assist Civic through our partnership with Newham council, by connecting local guardians in Canning Town and Custom House to Civic’s volunteering opportunities. Guardians have assisted in the transformation of the Custom House Civic Community Hub in a variety of ways, including painting a mural, building outdoor furniture out of pallets, helping out in the community garden and painting ahead of the building’s transformation into community spaces.

Civic has been delighted to welcome our guardians into their voluntary effort, and the project is a great example of how guardians can contribute to their communities: “Dot Dot Dot volunteers have been an invaluable resource in our journey to reopen the high street. They have given back to the community in more ways than one. Together we’ve launched a fruit and veg pop up shop, a podcast and rehearsal room, a hanging garden, a Covid-19 response and so much more. It’s been incredibly fun and they feel like part of the team. We can’t wait to continue to work with Dot Dot Dot across our Newham project”. 

Adapting to new challenges

In March 2020, the arrival of Covid-19 put plans for the community spaces on hold. Civic had to adapt to their changing environment and turned their hands to assisting their community in what was, and continues to be, a difficult time. Dot Dot Dot guardians did not hesitate to help the crucial effort, providing support by distributing food and PPE, assembling activity packs for homeschooling, creating “thank you” packs for key workers and sourcing clothes for those in housing need with Amy’s space.  As each guardian commits to contributing 16 hours of volunteering each month, Dot Dot Dot can provide an invaluable resource and direct volunteers to causes that matter most to our clients and the communities that they serve. Once plans for the community hub remobilise, guardians will be key contributors to Civic’s vital work for the Newham community. 

Not only does our crucial work with Newham continue to provide affordable housing to residents, but it has provided the support and voluntary hours to enable them to invest in meanwhile projects with the community at their heart.

If you’d like to hear more about how we work with our clients and their partners, you can sign up to our newsletter, Meanwhile Thoughts, here or contact us at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com.

When is a social enterprise like a submarine?

March 12, 2021

From our founder, Katharine Hibbert

You might think that Dot Dot Dot – a social enterprise which gets empty buildings into use, and which never gets closer to the sea than our projects in Southend and Shoreham – has very little in common with the Royal Navy’s submarine service.  In fact, our process for decision-making was inspired by that used by submariners – and it serves us in our day-to-day work for the same reason it is useful to sailors operating 500m under water. 

When a Royal Navy submarine is at sea, the crew make decisions based on three priorities, only moving to the second once the first is satisfied, and only moving on to the third once the second is achieved.  For submariners, these rules are: 

          1. Be safe 

          2. Remain undetected

          3. Achieve your mission 

This means that submariners don’t start trying to carry out the orders they have been given unless they are sure that they won’t be spotted while doing so, and preserving lives normally trumps staying hidden. 

Dot Dot Dot’s decision-making process is different in content but similar in structure.  When making decisions at all scales, we work through the following hierarchy, only moving on to the next step once the current one is satisfied.  In our case, the rules are: 

          1. Act ethically and with integrity 

          2. Be a sustainable business 

          3. Create positive social impact 

          4. Go above and beyond for our stakeholders 

          5. Grow 

This means that all forms of dishonesty and cruelty are ruled out, even if the behaviour is legal but morally dubious, and even if it helped the business and we would never get caught.   

After that, it’s important that we stay in business.  We cover our costs through the fees paid by our guardians not through grants, so we need to earn money to continue to do our work.  We make no apology for aiming to make a profit – being in the black opens up opportunities, makes us independent and gives us a margin for error.  We also have a responsibility to our team, the people we house and the property owners we work with to create a stable environment.  People rely on us for jobs and homes, and we play a key role in some huge regeneration projects, so we shouldn’t take big risks or make high-stakes gambles that could put this in jeopardy.   

But being a sustainable business isn’t enough on its own.  We’re proud of doing well, but we come to work to make a difference.  Once we’re confident that our risks are managed, we lean into the social impact aspects of our business model.  Fortunately for Dot Dot Dot, support for volunteering and communities iintegral to what we do.  Simply by staying in business we prevent empty buildings from blighting neighbourhoods and we enable people to get involved in causes they care about.  But there is always more that can be done – and when we have the resources available, we look for ways that we can make volunteering and neighbourliness even easier and more appealing for guardians.  We also seek ways to improve standards in the property guardian sector and share what we have learned with other housing organisations and social enterprises. 

On top of that, once we’re happy that we’re working towards our vision of a society where people have the time and energy to give back to communities and causes they care about, we look to do a great job for the individuals and the specific organisations who work with us, and for the Dot Dot Dot team.  For example, we invest extra money in making the communal areas of our larger shared buildings welcoming, clean and comfortable so that guardians can enjoy them.  We tailor our service to the needs of each property owner we work with – this blog outlines how we’ve done this in Henley for South Oxford Housing Association.  And we try to provide a good working environment – for example, by encouraging team-members to make use of our flexitime scheme to ensure that they can get out and about during lockdown.   

Finally, we look to take on new work and grow – but only if we’re confident that all the other priorities are satisfied.  Growth is important to us – scale can support stability, and the more work we win, the more people we can house and the more volunteering we can support.  But growth which doesn’t support impact, which harms the service we offer to existing clients, or which puts our business sustainability at risk, is ruled out by these decision-making principles.  So all the proposals we provide to property owners are priced and specified in such a way that we can do a great job of the work from beginning to end, while creating significant impact, providing good homes, and avoiding putting staff under undue pressure.  If this means we lose out on some contracts, that’s a consequence we’re prepared to accept – we’re not here to get as big as possible at any cost. 

Why does this approach to decision-making work for Dot Dot Dot? 

This decision-making process works for Dot Dot Dot for four key reasons: 

          1. It’s fast and frugal 

Making decisions in a business with many moving parts and many different priorities can be challenging.  This is particularly the case for Dot Dot Dot, which – as a social enterprise – exists to create meaningful positive impact as well as to make a profit, so we have to navigate the trade-offs this creates.  These decisions are always difficult, but simple tools help.      

For example, we have always maintained high health and safety standards in the buildings we manage – even when this has caused us to lose money on projects because we underestimated the costs of doing so.  This is because we believe that asking people to live in buildings that aren’t up to appropriate standards is unethical, so when we have faced this situation we have preferred to harm the business rather than break rule one.   

On the other hand, during a period of financial pressure we deprioritised some bespoke social impact projects and didn’t hire to vacant positions which would have made life easier for the team as a whole – meaning we prioritised the sustainability of the business over creating extra social impact and going above and beyond for staff.  But we also shifted our priorities back once the period of pressure was over.   

Our decision-making process doesn’t spit out exact answers to what we should do – in the same way that the submariners’ rules of thumb doesn’t tell them how to remain undetected, just tells them to prioritise doing so.  But it does ensure that we’re thinking about the right things in the right order.  

          2. Simple rules help in the face of uncertainty 

Academic work on optimal decision-making emphasises the importance of simple rules of thumb in situations of high uncertainty.  This is why submariners need clarity – once they’re in enemy waters and out of communication with home, they can’t know exactly what they’ll face or get instructions on how to react, so they need guidelines which will remain reliable whatever happens.   

Fortunately, the complexity we face at Dot Dot Dot is less threatening than this but we are operating in competitive and shifting market affected by forces outside our control.  We could spend months trying to work out a fiveyear strategy which sets out exactly what we’re going to do in what order, but then a change in market conditions, a change of mind by a key client, or a global health crisis, could disrupt the whole thing. 

Under these circumstances, work by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer and others suggest that the best bet is to keep things simple.  Our decision-making hierarchy does that for us, alongside more detailed year-to-year planning.  If we have spare resources, we put them into enhancing our social impact, then improving life for our stakeholders, and then trying to get into new markets.  And if we don’t have spare resources, we double down on the basics until we are in a stronger position. 

          3. It allows delegated decision-making  

One of the great strengths of social enterprises is that people choose to work in them because they believe in the mission and support the values and culture.  This doesn’t mean that social enterprises shouldn’t try hard to pay decent salaries and provide pleasant offices, but it does mean that people are more likely to be aligned around shared goals and priorities, and less likely to be secretly pursuing their own agenda. 

In these circumstances, putting the tools in people’s hands so that they can autonomously prioritise their work means you can get more done, more quickly.  A simple approach makes this easier – if managers can be confident that colleagues are making decisions in line with an agreed process, they can be allowed to crack on with more independence, which makes work more satisfying as well as more efficient.  It also means that when team-members encounter new challenges at short notice, they are more likely to make the right call.   

          4. The worst-case scenario is not a catastrophe 

Following these rules mean that our worst-case scenario is that if the business fails, at least but we’ve made every effort we could to avoid harming people or leaving them excessively out of pocket.  In our view, this is part of acting with integrity.   

In other words, our rules – like the submariners’  support the ‘minimax’ decision-making approach described by Gigerenzer, where one aims to minimise the potential harm in a situation of maximum loss It’s the right approach for a business like ours, and it also makes for better sleep at night. 

Find out more about our core values, our commitment to providing good-quality housing to property guardians and raising standards in our industry.

Life as a Dot Dot Dot guardian: Mahmoud, Oxford

February 26, 2021

From Dot Dot Dot guardian, Mahmoud, Oxford

I first heard of Dot Dot Dot through a friend who was a property guardian in Oxford. At the time I was living in a flat near my restaurant, Za’atar Bake which was expensive for the area. When the lockdown started last year, I realised I needed to save money in order to be able to sustain my business – otherwise I’d lose it. I saw that there was a Dot Dot Dot flat available so took my chance and applied. Now I’m saving hundreds of pounds each month which gives me peace of mind that my restaurant will be OK.

Last May, we started offering free home-cooked meals every day during lockdown to the homeless and others who couldn’t afford to buy their own food in our community. We thought maybe 10-15 people would show up. We ended up regularly giving away 60 meals a day. A lot of the money I’m saving through living with Dot Dot Dot is redirected to the restaurant and goes towards providing the free meals. I’m grateful to know that I can do this with comfort and continue to do so once we can reopen which I’m hoping will be in March for our community.

We also did a meal for 90 people on Christmas Day for people who didn’t have anyone to spend it with – we were really supported by the community who gave us a Christmas tree, decorations, lighting and we were even gifted 300kg of rice! Oxford Hub (a social action charity committed to bringing people and organisations together) invited us all to have a free buffet to say thank you and I even spoke to the Oxford Lord Mayor about more ways to give back to the community. It’s great to see people paying attention and thinking about other ways they can help.

Since we started offering free meals we have also seen our sales increase through people coming in to support us and our bond with the community has gotten stronger. We didn’t want donations or to make money off the back of offering free meals, so the best way that we can be supported is through people coming and enjoying the food at Za’atar Bake. Giving is about giving to everybody and doing charitable work is an amazing feeling. I want to spread good vibes and hope to the Oxford community and I’m proud to do it. It keeps us all going to see people being positively affected by what we’re doing.

I love sports and staying active, and last June I set a challenge for the community called ‘Running for 30k’ (or ‘Walk for 30k’!). People had one month to either run or walk everyday until they reached their goal of 30k – the aim was to get people outdoors in the fresh air and enjoying sport. Once they’d reached their goal of 30k they were able to come to my restaurant and claim their free lunch or dinner. So many people got involved and one woman told me it was the first time in her life that she felt fitter and lost weight. It shows what happens when you give people a challenge and spread hope.

A lot of people don’t think about giving time to charity when they’re busy with their lives and working hard. It’s all too easy to not think about giving back. Since living with Dot Dot Dot, I’ve not only saved money but gained flexibility in my life in order to give what I can to my community. I enjoy living in a society where we do what we can to help others.

You can find out more about the work that Mahmoud and his team are doing for the Oxford community here. You can also read more stories here from our guardians on how living with Dot Dot Dot has given them the freedom and flexibility to pursue their goals.

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.

Why is Dot Dot Dot a member of the Property Ombudsman scheme?

January 15, 2021

Dot Dot Dot has been a member of the The Property Ombudsman scheme for a few years now, and you might have spotted the Ombudsman’s membership logo on some of our communications. Our Chief Executive Peter Brown explains why Dot Dot Dot a member and why we think it’s important.

Whilst Dot Dot Dot is not an estate agent, there are similarities between our day-to-day property management activities and the activities that you’d see any letting agent carrying out:

  •       making sure property is safe and ready to be lived in,
  •       advertising property and explaining the options,
  •       being clear and transparent on pricing and costs,
  •       marketing properties,
  •       vetting applicants fairly to find the most suitable occupant, and
  •       moving them in so they can make their chosen building their home. 

Several of our long-held company values and the way that our team always strive to do things – holding ourselves to high standards, treating everyone fairly and in a straightforward way – are reflected in the Property Ombudsman’s codes and its instructions to all members. So one of the appealing things for me about joining the Property Ombudsman scheme was that it gave us a considered framework for treating customers fairly. 

We’ve found that it’s been useful to reflect the Ombudsman’s requirements in our own processes because this gives us an additional way of making sure our values translate into action, and therefore shapes how our customers experience working with us.

We also think it’s a positive thing to be a part of a scheme that is improving standards across the lettings industry, even if the way we need to do things as a property guardian social enterprise is sometimes different from agents in the mainstream lettings industry. We’ve consistently championed over a number of years why we want all guardian properties to be safe, enjoyable and comfortable homes that meet all required legal standards. It’s important to us that we help drive up standards across the property guardian sector because we believe this benefits everyone involved. We see our Ombudsman membership as complementary to our approach in this important area.

We believe we are the only major property guardian provider to have signed up to the Ombudsman scheme. We hope that being a member of the Ombudsman scheme and what this signals is reassuring to everyone that is considering doing business with Dot Dot Dot – whether a property owner or someone looking for housing as a property guardian. 

Over the years that I’ve led Dot Dot Dot, we’ve seen increasing regulation and higher standards in many aspects of the property rental sector (electrical safety, property licensing) alongside a suite of stronger consumer standards (restrictions on the fees that can be charged, capping of deposits). These represent improvements to the private rented sector and provide a set of important minimum standards that give customers confidence, especially to those who are housed regardless of tenure type. 

Dot Dot Dot has always taken the approach that these standards apply to what we do – certainly we have seen ourselves following the legal requirements more willingly compared to some property managers. We welcome anything that helps to improve health and safety of the buildings which people call home, and we see that improved standards give guardians and property owners confidence in the property guardian sector.

It’s also a legal requirement for all property agents to be a member of a redress scheme, so, should it ever be needed, the Ombudsman’s high quality and independent service is available to our customers in the rare event a complaint could not be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

If you’d like to find out more about how we work, you can sign up to our monthly newsletter, Meanwhile Thoughts, here.

On the ground: Bringing guardianship to larger properties

January 15, 2021

In our ‘on the ground’ series, our Director of Services, Mark Ackroyd, explores some of the details of how our service works. In our first article we looked at the ways in which Dot Dot Dot can tailor guardianship contracts to meet the specific needs of individual clients. This month, we explore how we handle the first stages of a guardianship contract, with a focus on large or more complex buildings.

Guardianship can be a very effective solution for larger properties. Examples of properties where Dot Dot Dot has provided guardianship include landmark office blocks, former schools, colleges and care homes. Currently, our largest project is a former hostel housing up to 90 guardians at Booth House in Whitechapel. 

These properties can require long timelines for development. In the interim, they can prove difficult to secure and suffer quickly from dilapidation. Guardianship can offer a cost-effective way to tackle those problems, but many property owners are concerned about how this would be delivered given the complexities of larger buildings.

Our first ‘On the ground’ piece explained how we use each client’s individual priorities to guide our approach. Using that knowledge, our approach to larger properties has three phases: 

  • Devise a safe and suitable plan of occupation
  • Find the quickest and most-cost effective path to occupation
  • Deliver value to the client at each stage

1. Devise a safe and suitable plan of occupation

This phase can begin even before a client has decided to use guardianship, and is unlocked through a Dot Dot Dot site visit. Our aim is to establish whether we can meet the client’s needs for the property via guardianship, and if so, how that could be structured in the property. One of the aims of an initial visit is also to establish quickly where guardianship will not be suitable so that clients can quickly move on to other solutions.

Using a combination of our own expertise and, where relevant, external experts, we will devise an approach that allows safe residential occupation. Our approach is strongly focused around achieving a safe basic standard for the property. Fire safety and provision of core facilities are major areas for consideration, and we look across the range of hazards set out in the HHSRS. These will be familiar to most property managers (e.g. electrical and gas safety, water management, safety of windows/doors/access, asbestos management).

What may be different, though, is that we do not need to conform to conventional specifications for refurbishment, and can instead be imaginative in finding ways to adapt the space and its facilities. What can we borrow, move, switch off or repurpose? Are there areas that can simply be isolated or decommissioned? What are the critical areas to protect? What can we modify and what needs to be preserved? With advance knowledge about how we work with our guardians, we can also be more specific in our risk assessments and plans.

2. Find the quickest and most-cost effective path to occupation

For large or complex properties, the first step is normally to obtain reports, surveys and quotes based on the risks and issues that we have identified. This can typically be done in a few days, and in many cases will run alongside active works.The fire risk assessment (FRA) is a key report in fixing our occupation plan and schedule of works, but there can be a range of more detailed in-house and independent assessments. The scope of these checks will depend on the property and on any existing knowledge or documents shared by the client.

In a typical project, the scope of work is surprisingly limited: service the core systems (e.g. gas, electrical and fire safety); complete minor adaptations (e.g. a shower installation); and undertake small remedials (e.g. lock changes, door adjustments). Cleaning or clearance may also be needed. For these projects, we may have agreed a full commercial proposal up-front with the client and will carry out reports and works in parallel, closely managing the schedule to move to occupation in one to three weeks.

For larger projects or properties in need of more work, we may break the mobilisation phase into three stages. This approach allows Dot Dot Dot and the client to manage costs and risks in a more structured way.

  1. A detailed package of reports, risk assessments and quotes
  2. Works toward initial occupation
  3. Final works to achieve full occupation

In more complex projects, typical works include electrical and gas improvements, alteration or replacement of fire systems, changes to partitions or firestopping, installation of basic kitchens, or remedials to larger structures like roofs.

Where this kind of work is required, we work hard to avoid delays which can equate to cost for our clients. Our presence on site may already be enough to mitigate security and management costs in some cases, and our team works quickly. Using a combination of existing contractor relationships and flexible local procurement allows us to work to tight timelines. We also have a heavy on-site presence, actively working with contractors to make quick decisions and solve problems before they cause delays.

This stage is also not a ‘standstill’ on other aspects of our work. With our core operational team involved in setup, and our marketing team engaged early to recruit great guardians, we ensure a tight transition from ‘work in progress’ to ‘guardians in occupation’. 

3. Value at every stage

As projects become more complex, the timelines are inevitably longer. In some cases, early reports and assessments could even rule out the eventual feasibility of guardianship. That’s why, in complex projects, we aim to deliver value to our clients at every stage.

The early work to assess the property will yield a package of reports, risk assessments and quotes that can assist in any future planning. This is particularly useful where property owners lack documentation, or where a property has deteriorated significantly. 

Even if a project does not proceed, initial works can ease the ongoing management of the property, since these will often focus on core ‘hygiene factors’. Examples of the early-stage improvements that yield immediate benefits could include:

  • Clean and clear
  • Environmental hazards identified or made safe
  • Utilities supplies identified and rationalised
  • Water system drained or controlled
  • Basic access/security issues resolved

As noted above, we put a strong focus on reaching the point of initial occupation. This will typically begin to unlock core security, social impact and cost savings benefits. Our plans may include reaching a basic level of occupation, but then continuing with additional works that will increase occupation and therefore improve cost mitigation or other benefits.

Of course, Dot Dot Dot’s goal is always to move rapidly to an effective guardianship solution. But we are mindful of the risks and schedules that impact property owners, and work to ensure that we can unlock value regardless of how a project may change course over time.

The steps described here will be familiar to many people who are involved in property management. What may be different is that, for Dot Dot Dot, property works are not an end in themselves, but are part of our delivery of a flexible and urgent service. Our diverse experience across hundreds of properties and dozens of clients helps us to cut through complexity and respond to the needs of the project and of the client. 

If you want to find out more about how we work, you can sign up to our monthly newsletter, Meanwhile Thoughts, here.

Working with Peabody for the future of Thamesmead

January 13, 2021

Built in the 1960s and deemed ‘the town of tomorrow’, Thamesmead’s distinctive brutalist architecture has been the backdrop to several culturally significant works of film and TV throughout the last 60 years, from A Clockwork Orange to Harry Potter. More recently, with the help of Peabody’s community investment, it has become a hub for culture and the arts and is home to Thamesmead festival and myriad community projects.

Since 2015, Dot Dot Dot have collaborated with Peabody to house property guardians in 120 properties in Thamesmead over the course of the housing association’s 10-year regeneration of the area. Over the last five years, we have housed almost 300 guardians in buildings that would otherwise be empty, and those guardians have contributed over 45,000 hours to worthwhile causes.

We take pride in our ability to be sensitive and responsive to our clients’ specific needs. We have the resources to conduct market research for our clients to gather both qualitative and quantitative data from our guardians. This valuable service gives our clients insight into who we house, where they volunteer their time and their contributions to their local economy and community.

After some discussions in the autumn about how to bring more value to the partnership, we conducted a survey to give Peabody a greater insight into the economic and social contribution of our guardians. 

Bringing economic regeneration to Thamesmead

Peabody are particularly interested in boosting Thamesmead’s local economy, not only for the inhabitants of post-regeneration Thamesmead but also for its current residents. Property guardianship can be an effective way to bring footfall and boost economic development in an area. 

We conducted phone interviews alongside the online survey to gather both qualitative and quantitative data from the 38 guardians (75% of resident guardians) that took part . A third of our guardians in Thamesmead run their own businesses, and, of those, 77% were based in Thamesmead. These businesses covered a multitude of areas, including dance teaching, project management, hairdressing, beauty, handywork, painting/decorating, media services, art production, young people and education, and poetry. Not only is it testament to how guardians can boost their local economy, but also to the sheer diversity of skill sets amongst the people we house.

Creating and sustaining a sense of community in Thamesmead

We have endeavoured throughout our partnership with Peabody to explore how we can best benefit the Thamesmead community. As we ask each of our guardians to volunteer 16 hours a month to a good cause of their choice, we have an invaluable resource that can be directed to local community projects and voluntary efforts. For example, Peabody are particularly aware of the need to help Thamesmead’s most vulnerable residents with grocery and prescription collections during the Covid-19 crisis, and asked us whether our guardians could support their efforts locally. The survey provided a good opportunity to ask guardians if they were interested in local Covid-19 volunteering and Mutual Aid groups, and we were able to direct the relevant people back to Peabody.

Due to a shared interest in social value, Dot Dot Dot and Peabody have a strong alignment of values. We also used the survey as a chance to gauge attitudes towards Thamesmead, and placed particular emphasis on whether guardians would stay in the area after their guardianship ended. Of those asked, 87% said they liked living in Thamesmead and 79% said they would consider living in Thamesmead after their guardianship had ended, making them potential future residents of the newly-renovated estate. In combining property guardianship with social value, we have helped Peabody to create and sustain a sense of community in Thamesmead which will last beyond our meanwhile partnership with them.

Through our sustainable approach to this long-term meanwhile project, Dot Dot Dot has contributed not only to Peabody’s meanwhile objectives for economic and community development in the area, but to their future vision too. To find out more about the history and future of Thamesmead, you can visit: https://www.thamesmeadnow.org.uk. 

 

If you’d like to find out more about how we collaborate with our clients, you can sign up to our newsletter here or get in touch with us at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com.

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