The ARL in conversation with… Bela Zavery, partner at Womble Bond Dickinson

In conversation with … Bela Zavery, a partner at Womble Bond Dickinson, who advises her real estate clients ‘from cradle to the grave’ and is passionate about creating ‘homes’ over ‘housing’.

Tell us a bit about yourself

I am a real estate lawyer and have been in practice for over 20 years.   I feel I am truly fortunate because I am one of the lucky people that gets to do for a living what they feel passionate about – in my case, building homes.

I come for a traditional background of South Asian descent and education was very important in my household.

I remember growing up, my father once asked me if I was going to be a doctor or a lawyer.   “Dad, I don’t really like blood.” is how I responded.  

I remember my father nodding solemnly “Lawyer it is then” he announced.  And so it was!

Having said that, as in most things, I went about doing things in my own way, first completing an economics degree and then after a number of work experiences and internships and once I knew law was right for me, a post-graduate conversion course in law.

Real Estate was my first seat and whilst I hadn’t intended it becoming my focus, the very first time I started working on a project, I felt comfortable and confident.   Years later, Real Estate and in particular building homes, is now my passion.

I became involved in the Private Rented Sector fairly early in my career and was fortunate to be involved in a number of exceptional Build to Rent schemes when the sector was still relatively new to the UK.

The schemes I was involved with were exciting and different, involving structuring and a number of quirky elements which appealed to me.  Each project with different challenges and requiring a different approach and it required working – partnering – with our clients.

So when I subsequently was offered a chance to join them, I leapt at the chance to join Womble Bond Dickinson (WBD) last year. 

The team has a fantastic Build to Rent offering coming from our long-standing roots in the sector built via our great teams in Newcastle and Leeds, and as we continue to grow the practice across the UK I have the opportunity to drive things forward in London and create something of my own while folding into that wider team.

Working to bring projects together from the ground up is really exciting –and I particularly enjoy the fact that no two deals are the same.  

I like to be engaged in projects right from the beginning and see them to the very end.  I see it is very much as a “fully life cycle” approach that allows me to invest in schemes and really partner with my clients in making a difference.

It is also important to me that we are helping to grow the next generation – to be at the forefront of discussions around diversity is important to me. Womble Bond Dickinson does a lot in this area such as the social mobility-focused STRIVE supernova programme and its Commercial and Intellectual Property mentoring schemes with the University of Greenwich. I’m really proud to play my part in these discussions by working with the firm in schemes like the 10,000 Interns programme whilst also engaging directly with the sector through the Association for Rental Living and other sector bodies.

What is top of your in-tray at the moment?

I head up WBD’s Build to Rent practice in London and our role is to help our clients through the entire process. Our clients are institutional investors, developers, registered providers and funders.

Our work is mostly project-based – assisting our clients right at the outset with the heads of terms, site acquisition (whether forward fund or forward commit or conditional), help with purchasing, help with development finance, investment finance, tax structuring, occupational elements, etc.

These projects require engagement and legal input over many years, depending on whether you are engaged once the site is already built or still in the early stages of development.

You find that you are often instructed to support the same client and the same scheme for many years.  This allows you to often acquire first hand and integral knowledge of the project.  In that sense, once you take on a project, it stays with you and I feel as lawyers we take on a role of stewardship in that you are entrusted by your clients to help progress the project and support delivery of sorely needed housing.

For me, this has always felt the most important – that you become a partner to your client as an extended part of their team and that relationship is not just transactional but built up over time.

What challenges are you facing in the current economic and political climate?

Build to Rent has always struggled to compete on pricing against the traditional Build-to-Sell market.  

However current market circumstances mean we are seeing increasing investment in Build to Rent (in particular in Single Family Housing) with (identified by Savills) the second highest period of investment at the end of last year.

The challenge is that there remains a lot of uncertainty and so it remains to be seen if this will continue.

Any factor which impacts viability is going to place pressure on development and the consequential delivery of Housing. At the present time this can be regulatory impact (such as the introduction of second stairwells), planning (which recent reports have identified are taking much longer and protracted in procuring consented schemes) or the cost of construction (such as the war in Ukraine) or tax (such as the abolishment of Multiple Dwellings Relief).    

This is further exacerbated with the uncertainty around the impending General Election and a potential shift in the political regime.   Some of this can be managed, some of it requires a concerted sector effort.

There is also a lack of awareness (and possibly a stigma) attached to lifestyle renting. As a nation, there has been a preference to own rather than rent.  It is incumbent on us in the Build to Rent Sector to re-address that and to continue building awareness at not only at a public level but also at a local authority and government level.

It is my view that Build to Rent can help address a lot of housing issues, but we need to demonstrate that you can get more if you rent and that by supporting institutional investment, we can deliver not only houses or apartments but more importantly good-quality and high specification homes.

The figure most quoted in the media as being needed to address our housing shortage is 300,000 houses a year.

However, in my view this cannot be right as it doesn’t really account for the ongoing need to bring existing homes up to scratch or replace poor quality homes which are already in the market so I would suspect the actual number of homes needed is far higher.

Build to Rent can help address this – but the responsibility falls to all of us involved.

There are some investors doing high quality work on both these fronts – really emphasising that Build to Rent is not just about apartments for affluent, young professionals, but also schemes for key workers or for people who want a mid-range product.

Single-family homes are on the rise now; if you have a busy job you might prefer to rent because your maintenance is organised for you and that’s one less thing for a busy family to manage.

Build to Rent also offers older members of the community the flexibility to stay in the area and communities they love but move into housing which is more suitable for their needs.   This means we don’t have isolated older members of our community and in some parts of Europe we are seeing fantastic schemes encouraging cross generational living.

You don’t have that flexibility when you own your own home – and retrofitting your home is hard. I’ve seen people I love struggle in big houses which are not suitable for their needs but are full of memories and so they refuse to leave.

So, in this uncertain climate there is challenge, yes but also there is opportunity.

Where do you think the sector will be in five years’ time?

While investment in Build to Rent is being made, the sector is still a very small percentage of the Private Rented Sector so there is distance to travel and there will be challenges along the way.

We are likely to also see more and continuing partnerships between international investment and developers.   

However if we do our job properly, if everything aligns, we will have a sector with greater public awareness and with support at all Government levels.

This all means reputable entrants coming into the sector and the delivery of high-quality housing – and a lot more of it.

And that is what is important – for me, it is about creating awareness that we’re not creating houses, but rather creating homes.

In some small way I see it as my commitment to the future.  In some small way, I am helping to create homes and communities where children will be born, go to school, have children and build families of their own and for me, this is why I love what I do.

That was almost a call to action, but do you have a call to action?

The sector is so small and still burgeoning so it is important for those in the sector to remember that this is not a competition, rather we can all grow as a sector if we focus on building awareness and supporting good quality schemes.

I’ve been a lawyer for a long time and housing has always been on the agenda; it’s what everybody talks about.

This is where I feel the good work that the Association for Rental Living (ARL) is doing so important.

Not only do they bring us all together in one space they are instrumental in increasing awareness and promoting renting as a positive alternative to buying.

As a key body, the ARL has been exceptional in being forward thinking with the introduction of their new Code of Practice which really helps give direction and structure to the sector.

We want more people in the sector, good investors, good developers – and good lawyers – if we want to deliver more Housing.

There is room and opportunity for all of us.

I also would really would love to see more diversity at every level of the sector – what we are doing is placemaking which is reflective of society.   The decision makers at every level should comprise of people from the backgrounds that form part of that society.  

The ARL, through their EDI Committee (which I am fortunate to be part of), will help guide the discussions on this piece – creating both a safe space for these discussions to be had and raising these at the right levels to effect change.

It is an exciting time for the sector and we have the opportunity here to make a real difference.  

It is incumbent on each of us in the sector to really wed in to that commitment.

That is what keeps me focussed – this is not just a job, it is a commitment and a responsibility: to help build homes.