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A new era of key worker housing?

As ministers reportedly consider plans to offer cheap homes to public sector workers, Sharon Alexis-Wilson explains the benefits



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A new era of key worker housing? By Sharon Alexis-Wilson

If you asked the public “what’s the biggest issue facing key workers?” what would their response be?

I imagine ‘low pay’ would be high on the list of answers.

But would ‘housing’ spring to mind straight away? Of course, low pay is linked to the issue of finding a home – somewhere affordable to rent or lay down roots.

This is where we come in.


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At Optivo, our social purpose is to provide housing for those in need. Helping key workers like nurses, police officers and teachers helps us fulfil this purpose.

Key workers are providing essential services to the public sector, but many struggle to buy or rent on the wages they earn.

Compare a key worker’s annual salary to average house prices exceeding £500,000 in many London boroughs and average rent at more than £1,200 a month. There is a massive imbalance for workers like nurses, police officers and teachers. The huge benefits of moving into an affordable home, near to their workplace, are clear.

“Key workers are providing essential services to the public sector, but many struggle to buy or rent on the wages they earn.”

But what do we gain by assisting key workers? Well, we want to build communities – our mission statement is “building homes, making places, enhancing lives”.

By providing homes at 15% to 25% lower than market rent we’re able to create that community cohesion.

Affordable housing enables key workers to live in the communities they serve.

By working with local NHS trusts over the past 15 years we’ve provided secure, managed accommodation – fully furnished and with an onsite maintenance team.

This has led to our key worker customer satisfaction levels reaching 95% (figure from 2015/16).

High customer satisfaction is always our aim and creates other benefits such as a low turnover of tenancies, reducing the time properties stand empty and guaranteeing rental income.

The very nature of a key worker’s profession means there will always be a need for people providing these services.

“We’re keen to grow this area of our business as there is a clear and continued need.”

No landlord wants its homes to be empty and having a succession of residents in a steady profession – a career job – is extremely attractive.

That’s not to say providing homes for keyworkers isn’t without its challenges. Changes in legislation have meant more complexities when it comes to the NHS recruitment process for non EU workers.

These can increase the level of non-filled staff positions in hospitals, which in turn may impact the number of nominations coming through to Optivo. This means the demand can be lower in some regions.

Of course, we’ve had to adapt through the years to different challenges we’ve faced.

Previously there was a clear brief from the government to invest in NHS-related accommodation. Newly qualified doctors were given assistance with housing for their first year, but this has since been withdrawn.

Challenges across the sector with attracting nursing staff have also been widely reported, with new applications down by 23%. The Brexit vote has also had an impact on the number of nurses coming to the UK from the EU.

We’ve seen the number of applications for housing by UK-based nursing staff drop in the past few years.

“We welcome any move by government to support funding for key worker homes.”

So we’ve had to find ways to utilise the accommodation for other key workers.

Our nominations agreements with our partner hospital trusts have become flexible to ensure we not only cater for their staff, but for local teachers, social workers, police and other emergency service workers.

We welcome any move by government to support funding for key worker homes. Offering affordable housing to key public sector workers would appeal to a generation struggling to buy or rent their own home and help meet the recruitment needs.

As a tried and tested provider of key worker housing, we’re keen to grow this area of our business as there is a clear and continued need.

On balance, we see more positives to providing homes for key workers than negatives. This is reflected in our strategic plan where we’ve made a commitment to building more homes.

But the main benefit can perhaps be summed up by a quote from Sir Peter Dixon, chair of the board at Optivo: “There are few things more worthwhile than providing homes for people who need them.”

Sharon Alexis-Wilson, national operations manager for key workers, Optivo

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