x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

London Olympic Village now a major urban housing scheme

As a legacy of the Olympic Games last year, work is underway to complete the development of the British capital's biggest urban housing schemes in living memory.

A security guard looking at the Olympic Village site, where the flats used by the athletes during the London Olympic Games are being turned into apartments for sale, rent and affordable housing at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London. Philip Toscano/ AP Photo
A security guard looking at the Olympic Village site, where the flats used by the athletes during the London Olympic Games are being turned into apartments for sale, rent and affordable housing at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London. Philip Toscano/ AP Photo

It's 10 months after the likes of Michael Phelps, Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Usain Bolt were staying in the Olympic Village at the London 2012 Games.

But while the memories of last year's glittering summer games fade, the London 2012 Olympic Village used to house 17,000 athletes remains a hub of activity.

The hoardings are up, the cranes are busy and workmen in yellow jackets mill around Celebration Avenue, the main thoroughfare leading from the station to the now defunct 8 to 10 storey blocks.

Observing the operations is Stuart Corbyn, the man who has been employed by the blocks' new owners, Qatari Diar, Qatar's sovereign wealth fund, and the British property developer Delancey to turn the temporary accommodation into something not seen in London for more than a century - a major new institutionally owned private-rented housing scheme.

"The overwhelming issue at the moment for London is the undersupply of housing," Mr Corbyn says.

"Since the global financial downturn in 2007 lots of people are struggling to get mortgages to buy their own homes and the existing homes you can rent through private landlords are of variable quality.

"This project aims to make renting an acceptable alternative to buying a home."

To this end the Olympic Delivery Authority is busy removing all of the temporary structures used during the Games to provide communal dining facilities and installing 2,818 new fitted kitchens into each of the apartments the village will be made up of.

About half of these flats, a total of 1,379, will be then handed over to the local housing association Triathlon Homes to house asome of the thousands of low-income Londoners in the five "Olympic boroughs" — Newham, Hackney, Waltham Forest, Tower Hamlets and Greenwich - currently classified as "in housing need".

The other half, Mr Corbyn says, will be rented out on the open market as London's first major rented housing scheme to be built in living memory.

The first 100 or so homes will be ready for people to move in by August or September and the remainder will be handed over in batches of a similar size over the following six months.

The move, which would be unremarkable in the UAE or most cities in the Middle East, is a big departure for the class-conscious United Kingdom where, since the Second World War, local councils have traditionally provided all major blocks of housing for rent at subsidised levels, supplemented since 1988 by a growing army of largely unregulated small-scale private buy-to-let investors charging whatever tenants would pay.

Since the 1980s, when legislation made private renting easier for landlords, the numbers of the capital's so-called "Generation Rent", those unable or unwilling to afford London's high house prices have increased to roughly a quarter of all London households.

A study by housing charity Shelter found that 55 per cent of private renters do not believe they will ever be able to save enough for a deposit to buy a home.

UK house prices rose the most in six years this month as a shortage of properties boosted values in London, according to Hometrack.

Average values in England and Wales increased 0.4 per cent, the biggest monthly increase since May 2007, the London property researcher said in a report this week. London prices jumped 0.9 per cent. Demand in the capital has surged 15 per cent in the past six months, while supply has fallen 0.6 per cent.

"The impetus for rising house prices is originating almost exclusively from London and the south-east," Richard Donnell, the director of research at Hometrack, told Bloomberg.

"Elsewhere housing market conditions are improving gradually, with prices trending slowly upwards."

Rents in London now stand well over £1,100 (Dh6,085) a month on average while workers' salaries in the capital average about £3,300.

Institutions such as pension funds, while they are large-scale investors in offices, warehouses and other forms of property, have shied away from the sector largely due to the fear of damaging their reputations by possibly having to evict tenants seen as vulnerable, and due to a lack of suitable housing stock that could be rented out on a scale large enough for them to make money.

But having paid £557 million to buy the private housing element of the Olympic Village plus development land nearby, Mr Corbyn is hoping the magic of the Olympics will enable Get Living London, the new name of the joint venture company he spearheads, to change the model.

Although he remains tightlipped about the exact rents to be charged on the Olympic Park, Mr Corbyn says they will remain at "market levels".

Market rents in the area currently stand at about £350 a week for a two-bedroom flat. And what is more there will be no service charges, no administration fees, no reference checking fees - or any other fees of any kind.

He adds the site will also be built out to include an education campus of primary and secondary schools, a health centre, shops, offices, cafes and restaurants.

Unlike most rented flats in the United Kingdom, tenants at East Village will be able to sign leases of up to three years, which the tenant can then leave after an initial period of six months by giving two months notice.

As the former chief executive of London's famously well-heeled Cadogan Estate in West London, Mr Corbyn plans to turn back the clock and build the sort of community created by the capital's Victorian landowners where some properties are still rented out on a form of tenure from that period.

"We wanted to find a way of getting people to think of East Village as their home, as somewhere where they can stay for a longer period if they want to," he says.

"Just because you're renting it doesn't mean you have to be transitory. In the 1950s and 1960s, people renting was a normal thing for people to do."

So far Mr Corbyn says about 18,000 people have expressed interest in moving to the scheme although the majority of these have been for the affordable housing element and only between 700 and 800 have been for the private rented housing.

"The problem we are facing at the moment is that we can't allow people in to physically see the flats," he says.

"It's still a building site so there are strict health and safety requirements right now which prevent us showing anyone around. As we only have 100 or so flats coming on stream initially we anticipate we will have no problem filling them."

And if East Village proves successful Qatari Diar and Delancy plan to replicate the project - not just by building more rented homes on the land designated for development close to the Olympic Park but also on other sites around the capital.

"At the moment all our efforts are being spent getting this scheme up and running," says Mr Corbyn.

"But in the longer term we do think this is a model which could work in other parts of London. There are suitable schemes around which could be used for this sort of thing but at the moment we are not progressing any of them."

Although Get Living London remains clear it intends to retain the project for the medium to long term, the company has examined exit strategies that include either a stock market flotation or a sale to another major institution. A third option of selling the homes off piecemeal is also on the table but is thought to be less likely.

But Mr Corbyn declines to answer the big questions: what sort of a return Qatari Diar and Delancey hope to make from their investment over the long term; And even though market sources estimate the price paid by the companies equates to a £275m subsidy from the British taxpayer, can they make money where no other institutions have succeeded?

"It's not that lots of other people have tried and failed," he says.

"Nobody has even tried it."

 

lbarnard@thenational.ae