A shared digital future


Chief Executive of Co-Ownership Mark Graham discusses the success of the organisation over the past 40 years, the challenges currently facing the housing sector and his plans to adapt the organisation for market changes.

In June this year Co-Ownership will mark their 40th anniversary alongside a rebrand of the organisation and changes to its structure and processes.

After just over a year in post, Chief Executive Mark Graham, who is overseeing the transformation, outlines that while Co-Ownership are striving towards improving transparency, innovation and efficiency going forward, much of its original ethos remains intact today.

“We recently came across a document shared between a senior civil servant and our original board outlining the intention of the scheme and who it was aimed at. Surprisingly, very little has changed. We’re still tailored towards helping those in employment, but on low-incomes, and others, achieve low-cost home ownership.”

Since 1978, 27,000 people have come through Co-Ownership and currently around 700 people join each year. Graham highlights that while the organisation’s ethos may not have changed much, the barriers to home ownership have and as a result, Co-Ownership have had to adapt their services to a different market, especially for first time buyers.

“In times of budget uncertainty and annual budget limitations we are fortunate to be in receipt of the long-term loan which allows us to plan more readily over a four-year period”

Modernisation

Graham outlines that in order to face future challenges, Co-Ownership are improving their services through a greater digital offering. Historically, paper-based, the organisation is now embracing a growing demand for digital access. Among the changes listed by Graham which are currently underway includes a totally digital application process and the creation of a digital solicitor’s portal, increasing the efficiency and speed of correspondence.

Co-Ownership are also planning an overhaul of the process of their application process. Graham says that currently customers have to “bring a house with them” and this is something they are seeking to change. He explains: “The current process is that a customer will identify the property they want and then come to us for support. However, we’ve identified that some estate agents are failing to recognise a bid, which intends to use Co-Ownership, as solid, until full approval is granted. What we aim to do is introduce a system whereby customers can apply online via a quick assessment and we can then offer them a property value. This then enables them to speak to vendors, developers, estate agents, etcetera with firm authority.

“Our mortgage provider partners have agreed to work in parallel with us when doing the assessment, providing a much better and quicker experience for the customer, while also offering greater transparency around our decision-making.”

Graham says that the array of changes, which will be supported by a redesign of processes and the creation of new teams within the organisation, are being driven by market research. “We are putting a lot of work into trying to analyse what the younger generation feel about shared ownership, whether home ownership is still an aspiration and how we can best deliver our services. We believe we have a strong offering and it’s important that we communicate that offering better with potential home-owners and a large element of this will be around creating a better digital presence.”

Change

Historically, barriers to home-ownership lay in an inability to secure a mortgage for Co-Ownership as house prices rapidly increased. However, more recently, Graham says that securing a deposit has become the biggest blockage for potential home-owners and points out that one of the main advantages of Co-Ownership is that customers do not need large deposits.

“Since the collapse of house prices in 2008 the barriers to home ownership have changed for first time buyers. All major lenders will now provide Co-Ownership mortgages which is a testament to the strength of the model. However, young people are still experiencing tougher mortgage criteria, and particularly, the need for larger deposits.”

They now have a current stock of around 8,500 – with ambitions to add around 800 new premises annually – and aiming for around 500 households to buy out the rest of their share.

Graham is aware, however, that the pace of this success is dependent not just on the level of government funding available to Co-Ownership going forward but also on the housing market remaining steady.

Co-Ownership’s ambitions have been boosted since the move away from its previously received Housing Association Grant, the pot of money used to build social housing, in 2015, to Financial Transactions Capital, essentially a long-term government loan.

Graham says: “In times of budget uncertainty and annual budget limitations we are fortunate to be in receipt of the long-term loan which allows us to plan more readily over a four-year period. This offers us the consistency to continue to purchase around 700 to 800 houses per year and we have already started conversations with the Department for Communities (DfC) for funding beyond 2019.”

Rent to Own

Graham is keen to stress the position of Co-Ownership as a not-for-profit social business. In November last year the organisation was recognised as an official Charity by the Northern Ireland Charity Commission, something which Graham points out is recognition of their strong social purpose.

“At our core is a social purpose and I think it is important that people recognise that we are here to assist them and not to make profits and pay dividends to shareholders. Like any organisation we have to act commercially and remain viable. We have balance sheets and cashflow to look after, which means maintaining a constant balance between our social and commercial interests. By doing this we can continue to help people maintain home-ownership through a variety of means.”

One new scheme which has been rolled out by Co-Ownership, and one that remains in its infancy, is Rent to Own. This is designed to help transition those currently living in the private rented sector but deemed ‘not mortgageable’, because of either their temporary employment status or poor credit history, into home ownership.

With Rent to Own, Co-Ownership purchase the property and offer a private tenancy to the customer but retain 25 per cent of rent payments to be returned to the customer after three years. This can either be used as a deposit to purchase the property, or if unaffordable, to enter into a Co-Ownership agreement to purchase the property.

Graham explains that while he remains optimistic about Rent to Own, an indication of its success will not be evident for at least two years. “These are early days and recently we had a handful of people reach their first anniversary on the scheme. Certainly, we have had good indications from those involved of their indication to purchase the house after the three-year period. Overall, we currently have 30 tenants involved in Rent to Own, with moderate growth of around two to three people joining every month.

“We hope to do an evaluation in the near future, and if we find merit, look to continue it on.”

Challenges

Despite Co-Ownership’s success to date, Graham understands that a number of significant short and long-term challenges exist moving forward. In the short-term, he points to potential volatility in the housing market and the reclassification of housing associations as public bodies in 2015.

“There will always exist an element of risk in forecasting the housing market,” he sates. “Currently we are seeing a fairly steady rise in house prices and we would see this as a reasonable level of inflation. However, we are aware of various factors at play that could change this and it is something we are monitoring.”

The ONS reclassification, putting the private finance of housing associations on to the Government’s balance sheets, has the potential to seriously curtail government budget allocations. Following the announcement all the devolved administrations sought to bring forward legislation that would reduce levels of government regulation and reverse the decision. While this has taken place in England, and legislation is progressing well in Wales and Scotland, the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive means that there is no means by which to pass legislation here.

Graham adds: “I’m reasonably confident that it can be sorted out and it’s not having an immediate impact. Currently the UK Treasury have provided derogation until the middle of 2019, however, if legislation is not passed before then, housing associations in Northern Ireland will experience a serious impact.”

A longer-term challenge facing most sectors in Northern Ireland is that of Brexit. Graham believes that while there was an initial pause on decision-making in the wake of the referendum vote, most people are getting on with the job in hand while uncertainty around the final outcome exists.

“If Brexit has a negative economic impact in the long-term then obviously that will have a knock-on effect for the housing market. Speaking to private developers, many will say that the depreciation of sterling has already had an impact through the rising costs of procuring materials and construction costs. However, I don’t think Brexit has had an immediate impact.”

Graham echoes the call from many housing associations across Northern Ireland that not enough houses are being built. He estimates that the private sector is currently building around half the level of houses than that of the pre-crash era.

Of Co-Ownership’s housing purchases, currently around 40 per cent are new build. The organisation has a ceiling purchase price of £165,000. Graham believes that an issue for Co-Ownership is a lack of affordable housing in certain areas. “In most areas £165,000 will get a reasonable three-bedroom townhouse but that’s not the case everywhere. If inflation in the market continues then there will be greater limitations on where we can offer homes.

“The likelihood is that private developers will probably never build enough affordable housing to meet the market need and so there is a need for government to do more to facilitate the building of more low-cost houses. This problem cannot be left to the private sector to sort alone.”

“The likelihood is that private developers will probably never build enough affordable housing to meet the market need and so there is a need for government to do more to facilitate the building of more low-cost houses.”

Future

Around 95 per cent of Co-Ownerships customers are first-time buyers, largely because this cohort has the greatest difficulty getting on the housing market.

However, Graham outlines that Co-Ownership have also sought to act of the draft Programme for Government’s indication of a need for more affordable housing for older people. Graham says: “While there has been a large focus on the ‘Millennial’ generation and their struggles for affordable housing, demographics show us that the number of over-55s will grow significantly over the next two decades.

“We need to accommodate this through the building of suitable housing and suitable housing products for the older generation for two main reasons. One is the freeing up of large family homes for younger people and the second is facilitating people to live independently for longer.

“What we are finding is that there are is an older generation who are considering downsizing and who have equity in their homes but don’t have the financial means to make the switch. This is an area we believe we can help in and something we are in discussion with the Department around.”

Looking to the future, Graham says that Co-Ownership’s board are working closely with partners to explore a greater role for shared ownership in both more mixed tenure developments and the creation more shared communities.

Asked for his vision over the next 10 years, he concludes: “Our ambition is to be able to maintain a constant level of purchasing 700-800 properties per year as we recognise that the demand exists for this level. However, we understand that this will depend heavily both on the level of government spending and the stability of the housing market. I’d also like to see significant progress on our journey to modernise, to do things quicker and as a result improve efficiency.”

Profile: Mark Graham

A psychology graduate from Queen’s University Belfast, Mark went on to do an MSc in data processing before joining the Housing Executive as an IT trainee. In a 30-year career in the Housing Executive he performed various senior management roles, latterly with responsibility for the grant funding of the New Build Programme for housing associations. He also oversaw two restructures within the Housing Executive. He joined Co-ownership in 2015 as Executive Director, Property and Development, before taking up his current role in 2016. A father of two, Mark says that his hobbies involve keeping fit through the gym and cycling.

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