Businesses Improving Housing For People Overlooked By Public Policy

a person maneouvers his wheelchair through an unusually wide door
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What's the best possible redesign to provide affordable housing for this tenant?

In the 1990’s, Aileen McDonnell graduated with a Master’s Degree in Housing Management and Construction. She was the only woman in her class, but that wasn’t the only way she stood out from her classmates. McDonnell had grown up on a Council Housing Estate in Manchester in England. She knew about social deprivation and she wanted to challenge it.

McDonnell started a charity called Care and Repair, which retrofitted council flats to make them accessible. Care and Repair’s business model brought all of the stakeholders together to figure out the best retrofit possible for each unit. Those stakeholders included housing managers, contractors and the people who lived in the flats. It was enormously popular and successful.

McDonnell founded B4Box as a business in 2008. It also does retrofits, making existing housing more energy efficient. McDonnell’s commitment to challenge social deprivation also continued. B4Box’s operations include paid training for its workers. The staff and ‘trainees’ are people who employers typically overlook, including people who’ve been out of the workforce for a long time and people who have been kicked out of school.

Does B4Box’s business model work? Stockport Homes (also in greater Manchester, England) is one of B4Box’s clients. Stockport Homes manages housing that belonged to the local council. Stockport Homes’ Director of Operations reports:

‘B4Box is our key construction partner – the quality of the work carried out is exceptionally high.’

You can read more about Aileen McDonnell’s work in Positive News: Insulating Britain: While Politicians Dither, This Social Enterprise Gets The Job Done

David Lidz shares Aileen McDonnell’s determination to challenge social deprivation. Lidz is a founding member of a workers’ co-operative called Waterbottle, which was founded in 2010. It is based in Baltimore, Maryland. Many of Waterbottle’s 30 worker-members have had a hard time finding work. With a history of being incarcerated, or using substances, or having no work history in the United States, they are shunned by many employers. Waterbottle breaks that mold.

Waterbottle has two arms: property management and construction. The construction arm repairs derelict homes that it purchases through tax sales1. Once renovated, the homes are handed over to the property management arm. The rents are set to be as affordable as possible, while covering purchase, renovation and operating costs.

Waterbottle has struggled with Maryland’s laws, which don’t make it easy to operate a co-operative. Maryland’s state government recently debated a bill to change regulations governing co-operatives. Even though the legislation didn’t pass, Lidz remains optimistic that reforms are only a matter of time.

Read more about Waterbottle in the Baltimore Banner: A Worker-Owned Co-Op Is Giving Baltimore’s Vacant Homes — And People — A Second Chance


  1. For more on tax sales, try: Receivership: A Tool That Could Serve Communities Better?