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EXCLUSIVE: Manchester's Massive New BTR Strategy Will Blow Your Mind

New build-to-rent communities, co-living and deeper private-public partnerships are part of the adventurous package of new measures from Manchester City Council’s new director of housing and residential growth.

Jon Sawyer, who took up his post in August, said Manchester City Council will turn up the dial on its housing development partnerships as it prepares to exceed its house-building target by more than 50%.

At Bisnow's Manchester Build To Rent Boom event Thursday — his first public appearance since his appointment — Sawyer gave an exclusive insight into Manchester City Council's evolving BTR strategy.

New Deansgate Square, Manchester, 350 BTR units acquired by LGIM Real Assets

Things are changing at Manchester City Council. In the months since chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein retired after more than 20 years at the helm, the city's policy framework is beginning to settle into new patterns.

Jon Sawyer takes up the post during a period of Labour back-bench discontent with the ruling Labour group's policy on affordable housing.

Now he has lifted the curtain on a raft of new thinking which could change the face of the Manchester market rental offer.

Here are the five big takeaways.

1. Lots More Houses

Manchester will exceed its housing growth targets, and do it by a country mile.

“The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework sets a target of 3,000 homes a year for Manchester — 12,000 for Greater Manchester — and we are predicting we will reach 5,000 a year in the two to three years which follow, so we are significantly outperforming our targets," Sawyer said.

“You will increasingly see us push for more affordable housing — it is already starting to happen. We are looking at another 500 plots on small sites to add to the 2,000 units already going through housing associations, and another 2,000 on four big sites in our housing affordability zones.”

2. Partnerships Will Get Deeper And Bigger

Sawyer was involved as a consultant in the early stages of the city council’s Matrix Homes delivery vehicle.

“The council was then in the very first stages of thinking about stimulating the market rent sector — and Manchester decided, as it does in many aspects of housing, that it wanted an equity stake.”

Sawyer wants the initial 240-home partnership between Greater Manchester Pension Fund (providing the money) and the city council (providing the land) to grow to something “on a larger scale.”

Matrix is now considering a second phase of hundreds of homes, Sawyer said.

“It would be great to see Matrix turn into a long-term housing vehicle,” he said.

Meanwhile the 6,000-unit Manchester Life partnership with Abu Dhabi United Group, now 10 years old, will continue to grow.

“We have only just scratched the surface with Manchester Life. It has just completed 450 market rent units and is starting to explore all sorts of avenues about how that vehicle can evolve on product and proposition.”

Manchester City Council Director of Housing and Residential Growth and Bisnow Manchester reporter David Thame at Bisnow's Manchester BTR Boom event 2018.

3. BTR Communities Are Coming

Developers and investors are already talking about the ways community has to be a part of BTR schemes, but Manchester could make this nebulous concept very real.

“I would love to see in the future someone like Grosvenor, as an example, saying why don’t you build a whole market-rent community," Sawyer said. "Its lovely to see Legal & General buy into a vertical community at West Tower, but why not a more linear community of hundreds or thousands of units of purpose-built BTR units?”

Will there be the sites for new BTR communities? Sawyer thinks there will.

“As they say, they don’t make land any more — but in a way we are. We are bringing together disparate ownerships in lots of parts of the city. We have a consultation on 15,000 new homes in the Northern Gateway — a few years ago that site didn’t really exist, and it's equivalent to half the city centre.”

“We also have massive opportunities to the east, potentially a 30-acre site coming forward soon we hope to have a stake in, another of 50 acres where we hope to build a site, so whilst I’m mindful that is not an abundance of land, it is definitely not a shortage.”

4. Co-Living Is Definitely Going To Be Big

Manchester has already taken tentative first steps into co-living with plans for 403 co-living units and 93 student flats in three towers at Granby Row, part of the former UMIST campus. According to Sawyer the city needs more.

“As the market rent sector grows it’s all about production and proposition. The U.K. property market has got to grips with the idea that two people sharing a flat don’t want one big bedroom, and one small bedroom and a bathroom. That’s the wrong product. But truthfully we need to see products evolving much beyond that.”

Sawyer said to he hopes to see rental rooms included in BTR blocks so that visitors do not have to spend the night in hotels, but can instead stay in the same building as their friends.

“Is it happening? We’re edging there. We’re starting to see the start of co-living but in my head I see steps way beyond that. We want to see more tenure choice, more lease length choice and other products, not just leases,” he said.

Work on-site at Moda's Angel Gardens

5. New Funding Models Will Debut In Manchester

“One of my predictions for the future is that as the sector changes we will get a new breed of investor buying from the smaller developers, and buying portfolios of well-let properties,” Sawyer said.

“Just like we don’t want to see flippers of sites, who get planning permission then sell, we don’t want to see BTR investors who want to get the place built, stabilise the rent, then sell on — we want to see investors who are here to buy, build rentals and hold that asset and play a meaningful role in this city’s economy. In future years maybe they do want to sell — that is their right — but we want long-term partners.”

The future could involve innovative new funding methods.

“What if the next investor craze is to launch a bond offer, so that investors can invest anything for £1K upwards in BTR? That would be great to see.”

“The only limitations are our imaginations and I’m really happy to sit in a room with any of you and kick around ideas on how we can stimulate the market. This is a joint venture.”