How to DIY when you don’t know where to start
This guest blog was authored by Hannah Emery-Wright, Communities Manager with London CLT, and Claudia Firth, freelance Community Management Consultant and resident of a London co-op. It covers what a Resident Management Company (RMC) is, how London CLT set one up and the lessons learnt along the way.
London Community Land Trust (CLT) has just gone through its first process to set up a Resident Management Company (RMC) on its flagship project, St Clements. St Clements is a multi-tenure site with 252 homes, 23 of which are Community Land Trust homes, 53 are offered for social rent via Peabody housing association and the remainder are for private ownership. The RMC will cover all tenures. In addition to the RMC, the freehold of St Clements will be handed over to a community owned charity (The Ricardo Community Foundation), when the developers leave.
What’s an RMC?
An RMC is a company which manages a residential site through a board of resident directors and the employment of a managing agent who deals with the day-to-day running of site maintenance and administration. The model is generally based on private leaseholders being members of the company from which the directors are drawn. There are many RMCs all over the country, mostly managing sites occupied solely by private leaseholders. The difference with the RMC at St Clements is that there is a mix of tenures, and the freehold of the site is owned by a community based charity.
Why London CLT set up an RMC
London CLT has a core aim of fostering a democratic culture that is distinct from centralised decisions made by government and the market. This aim is engrained in the fabric of the organisation, which grew out of the community organising efforts to develop St Clements as London’s first Community Land Trust, via Citizens UK back in 2005. The roots of the project began with the idea of relational power as a mechanism to further community aims and the belief that, through building relationships and democratic representation, real change can be made. London CLT continues to believe this, with the steering groups across London being responsible for making key decisions around campaigns and development.
The mission is to see communities create permanently affordable homes and transform neighbourhoods. For this to really take place, it means understanding that confronting the housing crisis is not only about building homes, but also making sure local people are involved in how homes are built and managed. This approach is sustainable only if local people are equipped to lead these decisions and processes.
The CLT sector has long realised that power needs to be backed by assets owned by communities: homes, management companies, freeholds, community centres. Once the assets are owned, communities have a real say in what happens to them. Making sure legal ownership is in place can protect the rights of homeowners, leaseholders etc. London CLT learnt the hard way that having poor legal infrastructure on a site can leave the prospective asset holder with very little power. Setting up an RMC provided a real opportunity to embed these values within an organisational framework.
How LCLT made it happen at St Clements
Provisions for an RMC were included in early negotiations around the St Clements site. The developers created the company and appointed interim directors from their staff during construction. Embedded in the founding documents of the RMC is the mechanism by which handover of power to residents will occur, through an annual general meeting (AGM) which takes place after the developer has sold the last property on the site. The current managing agent then invites all leaseholders to attend the AGM, where new resident directors will be appointed to replace the developer.
As membership of the RMC was written into the leases there had been some expectation that the developer might at the very least inform residents of the RMC and their future role in it. However, it became apparent that the developers could not be relied upon to ensure residents were informed and equipped to understand even their basic duties as members of the RMC. London CLT, therefore, sought additional funding to fill some of this vacuum and was successful in obtaining funding via participation in the SHICC (Sustainable Housing for Inclusive and Cohesive Cities), ERDF funded project.
Two consultants were brought in to work with London CLT staff and residents at St Clements. With their help, a resident steering group and working groups on topics such as communication, finance and site handover were set up to oversee the process. Communication channels were established and adapted from the previous residents’ association network. A series of regular training sessions were held which developed the management skills of residents and helped them feel more confident in the run-up to handover. Residents were involved in developing an initial vision of the company and a business plan, as well as in making changes to the founding documents. Several informal events and workshops were also organised including a workshop on nonviolent communication skills and a panel event with speakers from other tenant and resident management organisations. These latter two in particular helped shift residents’ perspectives on both what resident management could look like and a perceived divide between running an efficient business and quality community engagement.
Unfortunately, the set-up remains unfulfilled at St Clements as London CLT’s funding ran out before the developer withdrew. Full power over site management issues cannot be transferred to those that live there until the developers leave and transfer the freehold and assets.
While the inclusion of the RMC in the leases was a plus, the fact that the company was set up by the developers has been problematic and raises questions about how much a CLT can or should expect from commercial developers. The founding documents at St Clements need to be amended to make them fit for the purpose of resident management. However, there is an upside in having had a conversation about the articles of association alongside residents. Involving the residents in establishing the company has been important for developing their capacity, enabling their agency in determining the company structure and ethos, and ensuring buy-in through going on a collective journey together.
In the case of St Clements, the developers have been very difficult to communicate with. Beyond the developer’s failure to properly inform the residents of their rights as RMC members and about the imminent handover of control, there were still further challenges to overcome. These include the danger within an RMC that a very small number of – perhaps effective – directors wouldn’t necessarily embody democratic values or include the wider resident body in the decisions they make. It was also the case that the social housing provider, chosen by the developer, has not been open to discussion about what resident management might mean for their tenants.
The establishment of clear organisational structures of the steering group and working groups helped residents at St Clements prepare for management and re-engage with issues on the site. However, the residents at St Clements may well need further support during and after the handover. The constraints on time and funding have affected what could be delivered. The resident steering group and emerging RMC at St Clements still have issues to deal with that could have been mitigated had the relationships between key stakeholders i.e., the developer and the social housing provider, been more productive and been clearly detailed earlier.
While (we think) that fostering democratic cultures distinct from centralised decisions made by government is important, it is helpful to keep in mind what it means to be working against such norms. This includes acknowledging that dominant values, such as financially driven conceptions of home ownership and land ownership, will inevitably be embedded within structures and ways of doing things at every level and stage of the process. It, therefore, cannot be underestimated how much work and commitment it can take to develop cultures that propose different ways of doing things.
…For the future
But that doesn’t mean this isn’t worth attempting. On the contrary, it means making a commitment to fully understanding how particular values are embedded in structures, policies and practices and what options there are for producing alternatives. It pays to be both pragmatic and ambitious and to keep an eye on the wider context, as well as paying close attention to the detail of particular sites. This is especially relevant for mixed tenure sites where issues of inequality are often apparent and large housing associations may not provide the level of tenant democracy desired.
If changes to the planning processes could be achieved, smaller developers and community based housing development consortia might be able to bid on an equal footing with larger more commercial developers. Forms of value other than monetary (such as social or community value), could be taken into account when assessing ‘best value’ and the efficacy of bids. This could also allow forms of social housing other than what is usually developed by very large housing associations to be involved, such as small housing associations or housing cooperatives which incorporate a high level of resident control.
It is normally the remit of the developer to identify the social housing provider. In respect to the site at St Clements, for example, a developer who was more socially inclined may have been easier to work with and better understood the aims of the CLT. There may have been fewer snagging issues and a more sympathetic stance towards residents waiting to take over control of the RMC. It may have also been possible to have had more choice over the organisational model of the RMC and the social housing provider from the outset.
Community development and inclusive democratic cultures take time to develop. Establishing remote communication channels to keep the wider resident body informed does not necessarily mean more or immediate active engagement. Instead, developing direct, interpersonal relationships on a one-to-one basis where time is taken to understand individuals and their interests is key to lasting and meaningful participation. Mixed tenure sites such as St Clements present a particular set of issues, especially around diversity and inclusion. In the short term, active residents at St Clements were more likely to be white, male and private leaseholders, likely due to time commitments, confidence and a perception around expertise. In light of this, it is important that CLTs try to invest in real long-term processes of deep community engagement and this capacity should be built in early on.
It’s been a long, complicated and somewhat messy road. The residents may not have full power yet, but we have learnt a great deal over the past year, what to do next time and what to try to avoid, as well as a better understanding of what the challenges, limitations and possibilities are within the current context. We hope our lessons learnt can help other CLTs looking to establish projects with strong resident engagement and control.
“Setting up the Resident Management Company and taking full ownership of the future of St Clements is one of the most exciting and most daunting undertakings in my 8 years living in London. Thanks to CLT funding we have this tremendous opportunity to set an example of good stewardship, diverse collaborative and equitable management, involving a whole range of viewpoints, interests, while learning on the (voluntary) job. Being involved in this process is as rewarding and fulfilling as it is demanding and time consuming. However, a bunch of committed and determined amateurs taking on a big developer and years of mismanagement to self-govern an inner-city estate – this is big!!!”
– Gunther (CLT resident)
“The Consultants hired by the London CLT were brilliant and knowledgable; initiating, pushing and bringing almost demotivated but still energetic sailors to keep the ship moving in the many “can you unmute” zoom meetings.
For me the biggest gain apart from guiding us was the momentum achieved, reenergising the tired sailors who were fighting the pirates along the way. The biggest learning was that only by coming together and trying to bring as many residents as possible on board can we progress, and the process really helped us with some tools, resources and more importantly the fire!”
– Nagesh (Private owner)
Pictures below from ‘St Clements Day’ festivities Nov 2021 organised by members of the RMC.