Dolphin Living offers New Era tenants a new home on the rebuilt estate with personalized rents, a place to stay during the rebuild and to cover moving costs. Lindsey Garrett, president of the New Era Tenants’ Association, says the redevelopment “isn’t ideal”, but adds: “We’re going to be moving into nice new apartments for the same rent. As long as we want to stay here, our rents won’t increase to unaffordable levels.
Ms. Garrett, however, seems disappointed that the New Era experience hasn’t taken off more widely. “For us, in this area, everything is going well. We achieved what we wanted to achieve,” she says. “But that doesn’t change anything else.”
But custom rents are the reason redevelopment is stuck in the planning system. Dolphin’s plans were approved by Hackney Council 18 months ago but are held back by the GLA for the ‘unacceptable’ loss of affordable housing it offers. According to an earlier schedule, tenants were to return to a rebuilt estate this year. Ms. Harris seems upset about the delays and their reasons. She attributes this to a planning “misunderstanding”, something that has plagued Dolphin Living and its unconventional rental models from the start.
“We considered trying to retroactively put personalized rents into something we were already operating. But then we realized we were going to have to go through a whole new scheduling app. It could cost us £100,000. We decided not to.”
What happened is that Dolphin actually created what the GLA considers “affordable housing” in New Era when it introduced personalized rents on privately rented homes. Now, in line with its planning rules, the GLA wants the equivalent amount of “affordable housing” to be replaced. Dolphin is working with Hackney Council and the GLA to “unlock this development and improve the supply of affordable housing”, Ms Harris said.
This isn’t the first time Dolphin Living’s custom rent model or its other “intermediate rent” model has created difficulties. “We considered trying to retroactively put personalized rents into something we were already operating,” Ms Harris says. “But then we realized we were going to have to go through a whole new scheduling app. It could cost us £100,000. We decided not to.
She sees the New Era situation as another example of Dolphin Living making life “hard on ourselves” by doing things differently. “What we do is more difficult because it’s unusual,” she adds. It has always been so, a glance at the brief history of the association reveals.
Established in 2005, the Dolphin Square Charitable Foundation only really got off the ground in 2009, three years after the Westminster Housing Commission, chaired by Lord Best, urged it to become an “innovative” provider and avoid “the simple provision of housing”.
Thus, the foundation initially avoided the public grant agreement, in the form of an affordable housing subsidy, and focused on “intermediate rents” with the aim of charging an average of 60% of the local rates of the Free market. Its “carefully calibrated” financial model would allow it to scale to running 200 homes a year without state support, the Dolphin Square Charitable Foundation claimed in a report published by the Smith Institute in 2013.
Its first development of a dozen homes was completed in 2013 but took “an interminable time” to get through the planning, admits Brian Ham, Dolphin’s managing director at the time. At the time, his interim rent model was as anomalous to local authority planners as his custom rent model is to them today.
“I thought we were going to launch 1,000 homes in the first five years,” adds Mr Ham. “In the end, it turned out to be a bit problematic from a planning point of view. We were trying to do something a little different.