Build-to-rent: My big let-down in Elephant

I thought it would be better than that, to be honest.

Elephant Central west facade

But after viewing Elephant Central, Get Living London’s new build-to-rent development next to Elephant & Castle railway station today, I’m pretty unimpressed.

This is supposed to be the new wave of renting, offering a customer experience well above what London’s jaded tenants are used to from traditional landlords and letting agents.

Unfortunately, everything today was old-school, including lack of knowledge of the product, lack of readiness of the property, overpricing of the property and a little too much pushiness about income and move-in dates.

By example — me: “How much is the council tax on this one-bed flat then?”

Salesperson: “We don’t know. We’re talking to the council at the moment.”

Ah, right. Here’s a developer that’s managed to build 370 flats without knowing what it will cost you to live in them.

What it is sure about is the minimum amount it needs you to be earning before you qualify to move in.

For a 484 square foot one-bedroom flat it requires a household income of £53,000. The weekly rent is £410, which is a monthly sum of £1,777.

It’s steep, but not outlandish for zone 1. It’s fully furnished too, which could save renters a fair amount, and in Get Living’s defence it won’t bill you for normal wear and tear.

And broadband thrown in free is a nice offset, but you do have to pay for water, heat and electricity. And again, there was no clarity on what ballpark those bills would be in.

These flats being modern builds, they will be energy efficient. But you also get that typical newbuild layout where the kitchen/lounge recedes lengthways back from the window and on all but very sunny days you need to have the lights on.

A tight fit for a couple earning £53,000 per year

Get Living again let themselves down on presentation, first showing me a one-bed with half of its daylight impaired by the adjacent tower.

It’s not just that flat that has that crowded-in feel but also the third-floor communal terrace, which is east-facing and blocked off by towers from the north, the west and a good part of the south-east. (It’s the bit inside the orange oval in the picture below.)

The oddest part of the experience was how hard it was to, well, see the whole building. Although a handful of tenants have already moved in, the cycle spaces in the basement weren’t ready.

Neither were any other flats above the tenth floor, while me asking to see a different (lighter, west-facing) one-bed and a two-bed flat seemed almost to be a trick question.

Finally, there was a bit too much focus on what date I could move in and when I was planning to make a decision. Just like a typical letting agent, where they’re qualifying you to see how desperate you are, rather than making an effort to sell to you.

To finish up, I know some people will spring to Get Living’s defence, protesting that the development hasn’t officially launched yet and that it’s normal to have an initial period with only a small number of tenants because it helps to sort teething problems.

But last year I visited Essential Living’s Archway development under similar conditions and had a rather more positive impression.

To the people who advocate for build-to-rent, I’d like the sector to succeed, but if your product proposition is that you trump the traditional private rented sector experience then you have to back it up with reality, even if some guy turns up before you’re quite ready.

I‘m saving some general criticism for last, which is that the more I see of build-to-rent the more cynical I become about its potential to address the housing shortage for anyone but the well-off.

You start off thinking “Great! 370 flats to rent, they’ll fill up quickly”, but the reality is that Delancey and Qatari Diar (Get Living’s owners) aren’t in a rush to house people.

As with developers of housing for private sale, it serves them to release flats only at the pace that the market will absorb them at the price they need.

So one of the three towers was yet to be opened, while only flats on the lower floors of the other two towers were available for rent. Maybe the higher floors have yet to be fitted out. Did the agent know when all three buildings would be ready? No.

One argument in build-to-rent’s favour is developers prevent tenants from sub-letting rooms via Airbnb-style short lettings, so it offers a source of supply that’s separate from the tourist market.

But I can’t help looking at it another way … there are 300 flats sitting more or less ready, but empty, in the middle of an acute homelessness and cost of housing crisis, because the state has given up on providing supply quickly, from the bottom up, while developers provide it slowly, from the top down.

For-profit delivery will help, I hasten to add. You can imagine the one-bed flat I saw would lure a Home Countries businessman to ditch the tired old studio he rents as a pied-a-terre in Marylebone, and help to further drive down central London rents. Competition is good, but it’s the rich who benefit first.