A Career in Housing: David Cant

David Cant is the former CEO of Brisbane Housing Company (BHC). His retirement – in August 2017 – capped off a career spanning more than 40 years in the community housing sector. HousingWORKS caught up with David to reflect on a career journey that has taken him from inner London to the sunny streets of Brisbane.

1976 was quite an interesting year. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs formally established Apple computers and a 14-year-old gymnast from Romania named Nadia Comaneci dominated the Montreal Olympics. A boxing film written by a relatively unknown Hollywood actor named Sylvester Stallone hit cinema screens. And a young Housing Economics graduate named David Cant showed up at the Community Housing Association in Kentish Town, North London, for his first day of work as a special projects officer.

“My first degree was at Oxford University,” explains David. “I studied Politics and Economics and then I was studying at University College, London, doing a Masters degree. I was very interested in what determined whether people owned or rented, or how much control they had over their housing. I met a very charismatic CEO of a housing association called Alan Edgar, and he told me about a project that he was trying to get off the ground.”

Although the project in question struggled, David found himself in the thick of the action as an almost revolutionary period of change in the UK’s housing sector was getting underway.

David found himself in the thick of the action as an almost revolutionary period of change in the UK’s housing sector was getting underway.

“The industry had been given a huge boost in the latter part of the ’70s by a bipartisan policy to promote the not-for-profit housing sector,” says David. “This was, itself, a reaction to the fact that in England, over many years, there’d been a polarisation between owner-occupation and public housing. Public housing had about 25 percent of the housing stock, while owner-occupiers had about 70 percent.”

“There was a feeling in government – which wasn’t always explicit but implicit in some of the policy positions they took – that the polarisation between people who rent from the state and people who own their own homes, with nothing in-between, was also politically polarising, and it didn’t enable mobility for people, in terms of their work and their personal progress,” continues David.

“There was a deliberate attempt to re-capitalise the private rental market, except it was through the not-for-profit sector. So it was a great time to be in the industry. There were huge amounts of money being invested in the not-for-profits, and they weren’t always capable of performing the role they were being asked to perform so there was a lot of organisational change and challenge going on.”

As the industry evolved so too did David’s career. He spent a good deal of time in the regulatory aspect of community housing, which provided him with some valuable insights into not just what was going on in the industry but how the industry functioned.

“Some of the organisations I was involved in overseeing were growing at a rate of 100 percent a year; doubling their size every year,” he explains. “And that created growing pains – budgetary failures, financial crises, leadership failures, governance failures. We were in the thick of it. It was very stimulating, very hard work but very educational at the same time.”

David soon decided he’d had enough of checking on what other people were doing, feeling instead that he was up to the task of leading a housing organisation of his own. An opportunity soon presented itself with New Islington Hackney Housing – taking in Hackney and Islington, “two very deprived boroughs in East London”, as David describes them. It was a decision that would have a profound impact on David’s life.

Many of the inner London boroughs had been under single party control without a change since the Second World War.

“I stayed with New Islington for 14 years, ending up as the CEO and, at the point I left, we had 6,000 properties. So, that was another big phase of my career,” he remarks. “Some aspects of Hackney and Islington were very frustrating. It’s a bit of generalisation but many of the inner London boroughs had been, at that time, under single party control without a change since the Second World War. They were generally not well run – their housing portfolios were huge and under-resourced and overly politicised – there were all sorts of administrative issues.”

With the dawning of a new century, David’s frustrations reached boiling point. The supposed Y2K ‘bug’ became the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

“In the run up to the year 2000, we had the millennium bug, and all that. Hackney and Islington both tried to impress everybody [by not] being the stereotypical, inefficient inner London council so they both decided they would be proactive. They both bought completely new software for their housing benefits systems. They probably didn’t need to do anything – as we all discovered from the non-event that the Y2K thing was – but both boroughs introduced complex and poorly trialled new systems, which promptly failed. All housing benefit payments stopped and all rent arrears went up, which were critical issues for low income clients as any housing manger will know. The best way to sustain tenancies is to help tenants budget and keep arrears to a minimum.”

“So, coming on top of the fact that I’d been there a long time, to see us going backwards, I just thought, ‘I need a break.’ I had a sister and a brother living in Australia, and I’d been out for a short holiday but I’d never been there for any length of time, then a whole series of coincidences happened.”

“I was treasurer of the London Housing Association’s Committee at that time,” continues David. “In that role, we hosted visitors from overseas and I happened to host a visitor from Australia called Ken Horsham, who’s since passed away. Ken had set up Canberra Community Housing years ago, and I showed him some public housing in Hackney and, just in the course of conversation, I said that I was thinking of a working holiday in Australia for six months – ‘Would anyone be interested in giving me an opportunity to do that?’ He was very enthusiastic, and gave me a list of people to write to.”

“So, I ended up writing to half a dozen [Directors General] around Australia, and Queensland made contact with me very quickly and said, ‘We’d love you to come over.’ It all happened quickly and seamlessly without too much hassle. I came to Queensland in 2000.”

Navigating his way through the intricacies of Australia’s employment and immigration laws, David soon found himself at the heart of some high-level project work with the Queensland Government. With his experiences from Hackney and Islington informing some key decisions facing that state’s public housing sector, he found himself working on a project formulating what would ultimately become Brisbane Housing Company (BHC).

“I got a contract with the Department of Housing doing feasibility work on Brisbane Housing Company. It ended up taking us about 15 months before the company was incorporated and we appointed the first chairman of that company, Kevin Seymour. I’d been briefing him for about two or three weeks said, ‘Hang on a moment – whose is going to be the CEO?’ And I said, ‘Well that’s a matter for you and the board.’ And he said, “Well, I’ve made my mind up already… I want you to do it.’”

A notoriously forceful character, Seymour laid out his reasons for wanting David in the CEO role: “He just went to a board meeting and said, ‘We’re not going to advertise, we’re going to appoint this individual because he knows more about this idea than anyone else,’” laughs David. “My wife Jane was with me. We liked Brisbane – it was a great place to bring up kids – so I ended up being the inaugural CEO and resigned from my job in the UK.”

That was 2002. Having overseen some remarkable growth, by 2016, David sensed the time to pass on the torch to a new generation might be upon him: “I was thinking, ‘This has been fantastic but the world has changed. While I’m knowledgeable and I’m still passionate and everything, I think it would actually benefit the company to have someone new come in.”

“The original funding that we got from the state and local government was – along with some debt finance – for the delivery of 400 homes,” he explains. “We’ve done nearly 2,000 homes and the company’s worth $320 million. It’s been a brilliant opportunity.”

Like a lot of people entering retirement, David is looking forward to the next phase of his life.

We’ve done nearly 2,000 homes and the company’s worth $320 million.

“I’m just recalibrating myself. I want to have more flexibility, feel under less pressure to work in a particular way. I’m kind of excited about having more space in my life; that I’ve got a bit of freedom and flexibility to speak out, research new things, make new connections, work in different ways,” he muses. “That sort of freedom is quite liberating.”

‘Legacy’ can be quite a loaded word but it’s one on which David is happy to reflect.

“The most rewarding thing in my career has been my involvement with BHC,” he says without blinking when asked about the career achievements of which he feels the greatest fondness. “No organisation’s perfect but BHC attracted some exceptional people who have made a great difference in the lives of people in housing need. I hope and I believe people will remember me as someone who was very engaged, very committed… and having a bit of fun as well, because I like a laugh.”

He’s also grateful for his experiences in London’s inner boroughs: “The early years of my career were really giving me a wealth of rich experience about what, and what not, to do in the business of affordable rental housing. But I feel thrilled that BHC has fulfilled its promise and I know there have been so many people’s lives that have been changed for the better by being able to be housed by a stable, robust, quality housing organisation.”