The UKAA In conversation with… Sowgol Zarinchang

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey into BTR

I didn’t study real estate so my journey into the property industry was rather accidental, but I’ve always believed in excellent customer service and making a difference. I really enjoy people management and like to coach people to reach their goals in both their personal and professional lives.

I started my career in real estate about 22 years ago in a housing association, moved to JLL and from there to Long Harbour to set up their management platform Way of Life. I’m currently leading a team of around 60 people and currently managing over 1,500 apartments in London and the Midlands with around £28 million rent roll. 

What’s the top item in your in-tray?

I always start each day by making sure I have a happy, knowledgeable team. This is my first priority; I like to check how my team is doing and how we can support them to do a great job.

We have been launching two buildings in the last four months – Riverstone Heights in Bromley-by-Bow with 204 apartments and The Sessile with 310 apartments in Tottenham Hale, both with amazing amenity spaces. It’s been a busy period on top of our ambitions to grow our third-party management service offerings to other developers and investors. My in-tray also involves attending different workstreams responding to government initiatives such as building safety and renters’ reform, so there’s always something interesting to be part of.

I’m the diversity and inclusion officer for the group and lead the D&I committee. We have just completed a survey which has provided some real insight and given us more information about how diverse the organisation is and just how vital the D&I is for our staff members. To assist with raising awareness, I also assist with organising lunch and learn events and bringing in external speakers to talk about different topics ranging from cultural differences to learning about a specific D&I topic.

Regarding diversity and inclusion, I like to think we have made good progress in the sector. I have seen a diverse pool of talents being appointed to senior/board-level positions; that was very unlikely a few years ago but we still need a better representation of women in decision-making roles. It shouldn’t be seen as a box-ticking exercise but instead creating an environment where the best and most capable people are in charge.

However, it is better than it was. I remember a long time ago when I was with the housing association, I attended an event on behalf of my company where most of the management positions were held by middle-aged males in grey suits. When I turned up, everyone turned around to look at me like I was in the wrong meeting. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but I was brave enough to ignore the atmosphere and walk all the way to sit at the front.

One of the UKAA’s pillars for 2023 is ‘social value’ – what are your thoughts on how BTR can contribute to this area?

Build to Rent should have social value at its heart with long-term investors committing to developments with social value at their core.

The UKAA has social value as a pillar, which is great, but the whole sector must play its part and social value should be at the forefront of the decision-making process.

We need to understand that the modern renter is looking for more than just space and value, so we engage with local businesses, recruit local people and have a mixed staffing group. In my team of almost 60, we speak 25 different languages, which is great – but we still need to promote the fact that real estate is open to everyone with a different background so long as you have the appetite and the passion.

In terms of social value, Way of Life have launched an initiative called Community Life which supports local, grassroots projects that share a vision for greener, dynamic neighbourhoods. We commit to supporting hyper-local projects, taking a place-based approach which looks at the long-term good for the local community.

We have just started working with a charity near our new development in Bromley-by-Bow and we try to educate residents that these are the charities on their doorstep through running events and creating opportunities to volunteer.

Our By-Residents-For-Residents programme allows renters to share skills, build community and culture and take ownership of the place. You don’t want it to feel faked or dictated because at the end of the day, it’s their home.

Our resident profile is varied and dynamic; people are willing to move from one area to another. We have families with kids, couples, professionals, creatives, sharers and some post-graduate students.  We have recently won The Developer Magazine’s Pineapples Award for successfully activating and making a difference to outside our doorstep through our Community Life initiative, in particular working with a charity called  Living Under One Sun. That was a great moment for us to be recognised outside of the BTR sector.

How can BTR continue to drive forward in the coming years – and how can UKAA help?

We are in a challenging period with interest rates and cost of living rising. Although there’s no cheap money available, we have to acknowledge that the residential market is still a very strong proposition. I think the government should help developers and investors through different initiatives to deploy cash and address the housing shortage.

In my opinion, with BTR we are reaching the shaping and evolutionary stage where we can learn valuable lessons from our operational buildings and don’t have to rely on experiences from other countries. However, to grow the sector, we need meaningful data, we need to accept that it’s not a case of one-size-fits-all because not everyone wants to buy their own home and have a different lifestyle and standards.

I am on various committees within the UKAA and BPF and there needs to be a clear strategy which allows us to influence policies and demonstrate how we can be part of the housing solution. 

I’d like to see us doing more around ESG awareness and being mindful of the impact we are having on society.

UKAA is a respectable body with members who are contributing to the industry and have the power to shape the future. UKAA can assist with knowledge sharing and raise awareness.

UKAA can work closely with BPF to shape the policies and consult with the industry on government initiatives.

So, you’ll all be sharing data soon?

There’s still some nervousness in the market around where this data is going and how it might be being used.

The UKAA Operations Committee is a great place where we openly share information, exchange ideas and support the UKAA itself.

We have recently started a benchmarking committee – it took some convincing to get others on board and share their data – but we’re hoping it will help people become more open, transparent and trusting of the committee.

I’m not sure if I’m being brave or a fool but as the chair of the benchmarking committee, we are trying to take baby steps to collect meaningful data for the industry. In my opinion, baby steps are better than no steps.

What’s your call to action?

I think the pandemic was the beginning of us in BTR getting closer and seeing each other as friends rather than simply competitors in the market. The UKAA played a key role in that and can do so going forward.

It would be great to see further collaboration within the sector, supporting the UKAA and BPF in their agendas. We need to move forward together and address the housing supply and demand scenario. It is equally important to address the shortage of staff and welcome people from different sectors to join us.