Two years ago, my colleagues and I at Big Society Capital began our journey of trying to better understand the housing needs of women and the potential role of social investment to address them.
To take on this challenge, we decided to meet and speak to the leaders and CEOs of women’s sector organisations. We spoke to 60 different organisations in total, and I heard many devastating stories about how the current housing market has failed to support women experiencing homelessness, and inspirational stories about those who have survived domestic abuse.
Building on their insights, I’m thrilled that the Women in Safe Homes fund has now launched, with £10 million from Big Society Capital towards its £15.5 million first close. Now being taken forward by our partners at Resonance and Patron Capital, the fund will buy and refurbish properties which are then leased to specialist women’s sector organisations, who in turn will let them at affordable rates to women at risk of homelessness.
It is an opportune time to reflect on our journey. How have we incorporated what we’ve learnt in the past two years in the design and implementation of the Women in Safe Homes fund?
Focusing on specialist women’s sector organisations
Firstly, we learnt that women are being failed by the current housing market and housing policies; and that women’s paths into and out of homelessness often differ from men. These needs require gender-specific intervention and support that is often best delivered by specialist organisations.
Therefore, the Women in Safe Homes fund has been designed specifically for and with extensive input from specialist women’s sector organisations. It is designed to provide housing for those women’s sector organisations, or housing providers that are developing gender-specific approaches. I’d like to take this opportunity to extend my gratitude to Women’s Aid and Preston Road Women’s Centre (who were both part of the Steering Group set up to support the Women in Safe Homes fund’s development over the course of 2019) and the 60+ women’s sector organisations that we consulted during our research process.
Offering flexible lease-based models that improve housing access
We also learnt that long-term leases could be a viable solution for organisations to gain access to safe and secure accommodation, especially those operating in expensive cities or smaller providers without a strong balance sheet to own properties directly.
As a result, the Women in Safe Homes fund is designed to buy and refurbish properties which are then leased long-term to specialist women’s sector organisations, who in turn will let them at affordable rates to women at risk of homelessness whilst also supporting them to rebuild their lives.
During our initial conversations with women’s sector organisation, “flexibility” was also mentioned repeatedly as an important feature. So we are pleased to see that the Women in Safe Homes fund is designed to offer flexibility to charities - both in terms of location and types of housing acquired (focusing on both dispersed crisis accommodation and move-on accommodation); as well as providing flexible lease terms that share voids, arrears and other risks appropriately.
Providing capacity building support beyond investment
Finally, we also learnt that providers who want to invest in housing face multiple barriers – including the lack of capacity or capabilities to develop investment proposals. In addition to the setting up of the Women in Safe Homes fund, Big Society Capital is also involved in the establishment of a parallel catalytic grant programme, administered by Preston Road Women’s Centre and funded by a number of charitable trusts.
The catalytic grant programme empowers women’s sector organisations to explore and (if appropriate) implement the establishment of a property portfolio to house their service users and to become more financially resilient.
This is only just the beginning…
The Women in Safe Homes fund’s initial close of £15.5 million is expected to provide three to five women’s sector organisations with more than 100 homes in the coming months. The fund has an ambition to scale rapidly in the next two years, with a target of raising £200 million from other investors and benefitting a wider range of women’s sector organisations to support more women and their families. Believed to be the world’s first gender-lens property fund, we hope the Women in Safe Homes fund will act as a trailblazer for the wider gender-lens investment community and improve the lives of more women and girls.