Amplifying her volunteering efforts with Dot Dot Dot guardianship: Karin and the Open HR Forum – Students

May 6, 2022

With the added support of Dot Dot Dot guardianship, west London guardian, Karin, has been able to amplify her volunteering efforts to enable students to access mentoring from real world working professionals. Karin’s initiative, the Open HR Forum – Students, operates on an international scale to create opportunities for HR students to become leaders in their field.

Developing a passion for communication skills

“One of my first voluntary roles was supporting students and teachers in Slovakian primary schools to develop their interpersonal skills. Since then I’ve been passionate about improving communications between students and working professionals in order to bridge the gap between learning and practical experience in the workplace.

At the start of the pandemic in 2020, I began a course in human resources with the Open HR Forum, to support my continued learning and development around communications in my home country of Slovakia.

I soon noticed a marked gap in the potential to access career consulting and work experience in Slovakia compared with the UK – the only options were for vast sums of money that were unaffordable for most of the students that I knew, including myself.”

Initiating a platform for students to gain real-world experience 

“I identified the need to establish a sub branch of the Open HR Forum specifically for students to gain practical experience and career consultancy. My main aim was to facilitate opportunities for people to be leaders in their field, something that was driven by students, for students, to dictate their own learning and development.

The initiative I’ve created helps to bring HR students together on an international scale, offering them mentoring and support from large professional organisations for free. Each student is paired with a working professional ‘buddy’ who is able to guide them towards applying their theoretical knowledge to practical scenarios.

They can also receive free advice form HR professionals during webinar sessions which has been really successful in helping to feed international knowledge back into the Slovakian education system.”

Utilising guardianship to re-divert time and energy towards volunteering

“Paying lower monthly living costs as a Dot Dot Dot guardian compared with the private rental sector means that I can afford to spend more of my spare time volunteering.

Dot Dot Dot recognising the value of volunteering is really powerful and was one of the deciding factors for me when I became a guardian in 2021. For me, volunteering comes naturally and is something that I’ve always felt comfortable doing – I’ve always cared about giving something back to my community, but being a guardian allows me to amplify my contributions and the amount of time I  dedicate to my initiative.

Guardianship is not for everyone, but there are many advantages to becoming one. I currently live in a large 4-bed townhouse in Hammersmith, west London, and share the property with a teacher, a human rights lawyer and a scientist. I absolutely love my guardian housemates and am so glad to have had the opportunity to meet them – we all have busy work and social lives, however we still find time to meet and relax as a household.

My relationship coordinator, Dominique, has also been fantastic. We feel supported by Dot Dot Dot and their emphasis on being there for the people as well as the property.”

How we work with LB Brent to turn empty flats into inexpensive homes in Queen’s Park

March 22, 2022

The regeneration of South Kilburn in Queen’s Park is a 15-year project aiming to deliver over 2,400 new homes as part of a sustainable and mixed neighbourhood. Flats are vacated in phases to prepare blocks for demolition. However, leaving them empty can risk them becoming the target of anti-social behaviour or can mean maintenance issues that could affect existing residents aren’t spotted.

Life for local residents can become worse just when timelines are most critical and when housing teams are most stretched. For Dot Dot Dot, this can be an opportunity to add most value. With a depth of experience in regeneration projects, and a commitment to delivering positive social impact, we work with housing teams to manage voids in a way that maintains flexibility and positivity in the decant process.

Assessing if a property can be used for guardianship

Dot Dot Dot and LB Brent worked together to establish a process whereby properties could be identified as potentially suitable for guardianship and handed over – or returned if unsuitable – in an efficient, transparent manner:

  1. Property in pipeline: LB Brent allocates a property as available for potential guardian use, and invites Dot Dot Dot for a pre-assessment site visit. LB Brent and Dot Dot Dot agree properties which appear suitable for guardian occupation, and LB Brent undertakes any necessary work to ensure that the units pass their EICR and gas safety inspections, are weathertight and have secure windows and doors.
  2. Property ready for triage: LB Brent notifies Dot Dot Dot when they’re satisfied the property is at the handover standard, and sends over gas and electricity safety certs and asbestos documentation.
  3. Key collection and triage authorisation: Both parties agree a timeline for Dot Dot Dot to put the property through triage i.e. assess its suitability for guardianship. LB Brent signs a Triage Authorisation Form and hands over keys. Dot Dot Dot inputs the property and its accompanying authorisation is into a property tracker visible to both parties.
  4. Triage: Over a maximum two-week period, Dot Dot Dot will assess the suitability of the property for guardianship e.g. the amount / cost of work needed to make it viable for occupation in line with our minimum property standards.

Either the property will be accepted by Dot Dot Dot, in which case LB Brent will give authorisation for set up to be finalised and guardians to be housed. Or, Dot Dot Dot will determine that the property can’t be used for guardian occupation, provide the reason for rejection, return the keys and a Property Handback Form to LB Brent, and designate the property on the tracker as being handed back.

Housing guardians to keep properties safe

Once authorised to house guardians, Dot Dot Dot will take on the Council Tax and utilities accounts, add safety certs to our online folder that’s shared with LB Brent, and obtain a selective licence for each property.

Prospective guardians will be vetted, with key considerations being their financial security, ability to move out if given 28 days’ notice, and their desire to volunteer.

Councillor Eleanor Southwood, Cabinet member for housing and welfare reform at LB Brent, explains: “The first temporary guardian was housed in South Kilburn in April 2021, and there are now 19 guardians across four different blocks. They will be joined by dozens more over this year as the regeneration progresses. They have already volunteered over 1,500 hours to good causes, including at local community kitchens, Covid-19 vaccination centres and the Compass network which represents the LGBT+ community within the armed forces.”

The final stage – vacant possession and handback

Using guardians means property owners are able to ask for their buildings back at any time and for any reason – all they need to do is give 32 days’ notice. In turn, Dot Dot Dot will give its guardians the 28 days’ notice required by law.

Once notice has been served, guardians will begin to activate their move on plans, and Dot Dot Dot will offer rehousing options when available and appropriate. The properties are returned to LB Brent in a clean and clear condition, and after inspecting the property, LB Brent will sign a Property Handback Schedule to confirm its return. Dot Dot Dot will close the Council Tax and utilities accounts and transfer them back to LB Brent.

This entire process can occur over a period of a few months to several years, and can flex with the timelines of the council’s regeneration plans. In choosing to work in partnership, Dot Dot Dot is able to provide its guardians with inexpensive homes in a desirable, diverse and dynamic part of the capital, and LB Brent can keep its buildings safe, support its communities and generate positive social impact through volunteering.

Helping clients weather a perfect storm

February 23, 2022

With rising costs and reduced resources, it can be hard for property owners to invest any time in considering the best option for their empty buildings. Yet just a little bit of work up front will reap great financial and social benefits once properties are under our management, explains Dot Dot Dot CEO, Mark Ackroyd.

I started this week contemplating Storm Eunice’s handiwork – it had peeled off a section of the roof outside our office. Luckily we are used to dealing with properties in ‘unusual’ condition – a hole in the roof was not enough to throw us off our stride.

The same is true for our clients, many of whom started the week responding to storm damage across the UK. Storm Eunice produced unprecedented weather, but somehow dealing with this exceptional challenge felt like  ‘business as usual’. Reflecting on why this might be, I realised that I have never known our clients to be more stretched than they are now – a record-beating storm feels like just another day in the office. And, indeed, many of our clients probably feel like they’re facing a perfect storm of major cuts to their budgets whilst trying to house more people with increasingly complex needs.

Handing over the hassle to us

The priorities for the housing and property sectors are certainly stacking up. ‘Living with Covid’ means making progress on stalled regeneration projects, even when costs have rocketed. It means coping with financially stressed local residents, and with the social aftermath of the pandemic. With housing in the headlines, issues like fire safety, property standards and residents’ rights also need sustained thought and action. This comes after years of cuts have left many organisations with fewer staff and tightly restricted budgets. It’s no wonder that our clients are busy and getting busier.

At Dot Dot Dot, we can’t control the weather. But we can lighten the day-to-day burden faced by our clients when dealing with empty properties. At best, those properties are sitting empty and building up council tax and utilities costs. At worst, they are attracting ASB, making residents’ lives miserable and causing expenditure on hard security (which often doesn’t work).

There can be a perception that engaging a guardianship provider will be a hassle – which is exactly what stretched teams don’t want. But, in practice, it means a few hours on the ground showing our team the site, and leaving us to propose how we’ll process any properties that are provided. We then review the proposal and agree how practical responsibilities should be divided. That’s all it takes to get us started, and we can accept properties at a scale and speed that works for our client.

As long as we have a good line of communication with a client contact who can update us on timelines and make decisions on the ground, we’re able to take on the vast majority of voids management issues. Our guardians will keep them safe, they’ll report ASB, and they’ll report repairs to us so they can be dealt with quickly. They’ll also be conscientious neighbours, which makes life easier for clients who want to provide a pleasant environment even during difficult transitions. Our team will be on the ground regularly, and can take on a wide range of professional management tasks to complement or extend the work of client teams. Those could range from small repairs to wholescale block management.

Short term investment for long term gain

When you’re in the midst of a storm, it can be difficult to see more than a few metres ahead. When your whole team is working hard and under increasing pressure, taking a little bit of time and thought to consider the benefits of a new approach can easily fall to the bottom of the to-do list. 

But, time after time, we’ve proved that working with us is worth it. With millions of pounds worth of properties sitting empty, the cost savings alone can be substantial. Just as important is the practical value of having a reliable and flexible partner on hand to share the load of managing those properties. If it’s the financial savings or the social impact that draw people to Dot Dot Dot, it’s often the support that we provide behind the scenes that keeps clients working with us year after year.

I hope you stayed dry in the recent storms. Give us a call if we can help you to weather the next one. Now, where did I put that umbrella?

You can read more about how we can support our clients by signing up to Meanwhile Thoughts, our monthly newsletter for property owners.

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.

Counting the costs of empty properties

May 21, 2021

Many property owners focus on the lost rental revenue when calculating the cost of an empty building, but, says Dot Dot Dot chief executive Peter Brown, there are many more savings to be had when using property guardians.

When a mainstream use of a property comes to an end e.g. because an occupier has left, or the building needs to be redeveloped, the focus on the financial loss to the property owner is usually on lost rental revenue. This is understandable, because those figures usually quickly add up, but there are also significant costs involved with managing and stewarding empty buildings which can hit the property owner’s bottom line. 

In my experience, most organisations will underestimate these costs as they aren’t used to holding property empty. And in larger buildings that have had a commercial tenant, the property owner won’t have been responsible for the building’s day to day costs and so may not even have a sense of the running costs of the building, so won’t have been able to make an assessment for how much the building may cost to keep empty. Every month when we run through our budgets, I never cease to be surprised by how quickly the savings of using guardians, rather than leaving buildings empty, can add up. 

For example, we took responsibility for around 165 Council Tax accounts in the last financial year, saving 14 of our clients more than £220k in Council Tax payments alone. Single accounts ranged from individual studio flats up to our largest 90-person property, and, there were plenty – hundreds – more accounts where the guardians paid Council Tax directly, thereby contributing even more savings. We’re also working up the savings on utilities, maintenance and alternative security options for each of our projects, so we can give our clients a more complete understanding of all the money they’re saving by choosing to work with us.

The costs of empty property that we typically see fall into two categories – direct and indirect. 

Direct costs are things that clients would have had to pay for themselves if the building lay empty – for example:

  • Council tax: discounts and exemptions for empty property have not been available for a number of years, and in some areas policies to incentivise owners to use property means that Council Tax bills can double for longer-term empty property
  • Energy and utilities: even when equipment is switched off, there are often standing charges to pay for
  • Hard security products: many of our clients have historically used third party security products such as metal screens to secure their empty properties. These products are either rented or purchased, and so using guardians removes the need to pay for them
  • Repairs and maintenance: we will often be able to take on some of the routine repairs and maintenance, depending on the building
  • Health and safety, and compliance: even an empty building needs to be managed and kept safe, for visitors and to avoid it becoming a hazard.
  • Depreciation: though it’s hard to measure, an empty building will most likely lose value over time as it becomes more dilapidated. There’s a value in a building that is cared-for and looked after.

But there are also other costs – indirect ones – that only become relevant once a property is empty:

  • Insurance – many insurers have clauses requiring property to be occupied without long void periods, and some insurers will charge more for empty property given the risks of vandalism or damage going unnoticed and unchecked
  • Theft or vandalism – these costs can be high in terms of both the cleanup and securing the building again. Unfortunately, we’ve seen even the smallest property being the target of metal thieves.
  • Squatters or unauthorised access – the court and bailiff costs associated with removing squatters can easily run into five figures.

So, when faced with an empty building, my advice would be to consider and make provision for a wider set of these costs and not just rent loss.

If you want to get an idea of how much property guardianship could save you, get in touch with us at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com.

On the ground: Regeneration schemes and gradual decants – build and flex

May 20, 2021

Last month our Director of Services, Mark Ackroyd, explained how we put in place the right support for regeneration schemes and other long, gradual decant programmes. In that first piece, he explained how we like to understand the properties, project and community to deliver a tailored service.  In this follow-up, he explains how tailored workflows and a flexible long-term approach can help our clients to achieve their goals.

Build a workflow that fits around the client

Our careful up-front research gives us a strong chance to hit the ground running in a regeneration or decant project. As well as giving us useful knowledge and a tailored model, we have already engaged in great conversations with our new clients, which helps us to establish working relationships quickly when the work starts.

Part of this preparation is about the detailed work of designing procedures and workflows that fit around our client’s existing operations and teams. This is key to the success of regeneration or decant projects. We need to be able to receive, manage and return properties to the client in a way that fits with their resources and needs.

At an operational level, this means understanding how the client wants to prepare and handle properties before handing them over to us. This usually involves agreeing a clear specification for the client’s voids or maintenance teams to follow. This will cover familiar areas such as:

  • Gas and electrical compliance
  • Clearance
  • Key cutting and locks
  • Fire safety systems

Flex and change with the project

Regeneration and decant programmes can change and evolve significantly over time. Our detailed planning is not just about what a client needs now, but also about what could change in the future, and our experience helps us to understand how our service may need to adapt.

We are typically prepared for the changes in size, pace and structure that could affect us, but we are also used to responding flexibly to unforeseen issues. By working collaboratively with our clients, we constantly review the outlook and risks for each project, and we are ready to adjust plans rapidly if needed.

This could mean tweaking a compliance policy to address an area of risk, or overhauling our entire contract to take on a new range of responsibilities. We often have insights and ideas from previous work that will help us and our clients to navigate changes. Although the details of every project will vary, there are common challenges that we are used to addressing:

  • Delays that mean old buildings are kept in use for longer
  • Changes in financial or political priorities meaning that the speed or scale of our work changes quickly or that previous decisions about properties need to be reversed
  • Changes to other suppliers that affect teams, workflows and responsibilities
  • Policy or legislative changes requiring us to evolve alongside our clients
  • Issues or crises in the local area that require us to change the focus of our social impact, resident liaison or other work

These are just a few examples of the issues that we have tackled with clients in the past. Because we can draw on insights from multiple projects and organisations, we can be a useful source of stability and knowledge for teams facing new phases or transitions in their major programmes.  An important part of our approach is that we structure our service to be effective throughout the lifetime of a project, with in-built flexibility and resilience, and a commitment to long-term outcomes.

Working sensitively to support regeneration programmes or the decant of multiple properties has always been a core part of Dot Dot Dot’s work. This experience informs every part of our operations, and we take pride in supporting clients in a tailored way through their most challenging and important programmes.

If you would like to find out more about how we could work with you on a new or existing project, contact us at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com

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.

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