The property market in south east England has a reputation for being prosperous – unless you are trying to rent, in which case it can be a minefield, with agency fees and extortionate rent prices. I spoke to Jennifer Elliott, who recently founded Silver Birch, about how they are trying to change the current landscape for the better, working with landlords and those renting.
What is Silver Birch Social Letting Agency?
It’s a Community Interest Company (CIC) which is a private limited company where all the trading profits are re-invested for the benefit of the community. It will work with private landlords to provide decent, affordable accommodation for people on a low income.
We chose the name because the Silver Birch is a fast growing tree and it can be used to improve soil quality for other plants to grow. Its deep roots bring otherwise inaccessible nutrients into the tree, which are recycled on to the soil surface when the tree sheds its leaves. It improves soil quality for other plants to grow and provides food and habitat for more than 300 species.
That reflects the opportunities the social letting agency will bring.
What made the two of you want to set up this company?
We recognise how lucky we were to have access to affordable rented accommodation when we were younger and to be able to buy our homes when prices were much more affordable. We know how hard it is for people living in the south east to afford to rent now – even for those on a decent income – and it’s even harder to get money together for the large deposits needed to buy. For people on a low income, it is even more difficult. Only those in the highest need will ever be offered social housing and are likely to have to wait around 18 months. Some families are placed in bed and breakfasts in towns away from the schools used by their children and support networks.
We believe that having somewhere to call home makes a real difference to how well we deal with the every-day ups and downs of life, how we invest in ourselves and our families, and how we build meaningful relationships with family, friends and our communities.
How will it work? Are you replacing the role of an estate agent?
In many ways, it will work much like a traditional letting agent – providing a good tenancy management service for landlords. We won’t be selling properties and our primary tenant group will be people on a low income looking for long-term lets. That’s good for landlords because it means a long-term income alongside a very competitive charge by us for the management service. We will be supporting landlords to access improvement grants – especially improving insulation so that the cost of heating homes is affordable. We will have much more contact with our tenants than a traditional letting agency, and use the trading profits to fund opportunities for tenants. That might be loans or small grants for essential furniture and equipment, help with benefits, budgeting, training, or starting work. Anything that will help tenants manage their responsibilities and improve their well-being.
What are the advantages for landlords?
A great management service at a competitive rate that includes almost everything; from finding tenants to closing inventories when tenants move on – and a much higher level of visits. Landlords won’t have any surprise costs, and will be safe in the knowledge that their property is being looked after. We will invest in supporting tenants to manage their tenancies. This will reduce potential arrears (although rent will be guaranteed) and changes in tenants (which can mean a loss of income until a new tenant is in).
We know a number of landlords who support the ethos of the company and have indicated that they would welcome the opportunity to be a part of it.
What are the advantages for tenants?
Tenants will have somewhere they can call home in the town they want to live.
People on a low income will not be charged any fees for checks needed, nor signing initial or renewing tenancies. We will use our trading profits to invest in opportunities for individuals to make their tenancy and future more secure.
While we can’t offer homes for life, we will be working with landlords to offer the longest tenancy they are in a position to provide.
How can people who are interested in what you are doing or want to let properties through the agency contact you?
The best way is email firstname.lastname@example.org