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Entrepreneurship

 

Venturing Forth: Bighous

An entrepreneur on the Master of Studies in Entrepreneurship at Cambridge Judge Business School ‘recycles’ distressed properties and brings them back as housing for society’s most vulnerable people.

Row of terrace houses.
Paolo Casamassima.
Paolo Casamassima

Investor-turned-entrepreneur Paolo Casamassima believes that property investment can have a positive social impact in reducing homelessness. His startup Bighous, founded in 2015, has already made a difference to many vulnerable people by providing them with a place to live.

Bighous was set up as a for-profit venture and currently has three people in the core team with all other services outsourced as required. The team works with a number of charities to help people get a place to live: first, the individual charity identifies abandoned houses or apartment blocks in a specific area; Bighous then purchases the property, contracts builders to refurbish it to an appropriate specification for that charity; finally, Bighous leases it back to the charity (that acts as landlord of the property) so they can bring in their tenants.

The charities also provide services such as mental health support or teaching people trade skills such as carpentry and bricklaying to help the tenants start working. (Owing to the confidentiality of vulnerable people, the charities are not named here.)

So far, Bighous says it has repurposed and provided 28 flats and houses to tenants including homeless people, refugee young adults from Syria and Iraq, people with mental health issues, and former prisoners. In one case a person was homeless for more than 20 years before settling in an apartment building renovated by Bighous.

Based in London, Paolo’s day job is Head of Global Market Intelligence at Orient Capital and he has long invested in the property market. He has always sought to help vulnerable people, and has provided financial support to five children in the Dominican Republic, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso and the Philippines.

He came upon the idea of Bighous while assessing for purchase a YMCA homeless shelter in Liverpool. While he didn’t manage to buy this particular property, he found another property in Liverpool a couple of months later that now houses minor orphan asylum seekers. This was in 2017 and the venture now works with five charity partners in Liverpool and St Helens,so far providing housing to 75 people.

Although it sounds similar to social housing, there are key differences, Paolo explains. Bighous is commissioned by charities to get a property in a specific area, but they don’t buy more than two houses in one street or four houses in a radius of one mile. “We don’t want to create social ‘ghettos’, but rather to help our tenants to integrate in the local community,” he says. “Also, we often provide housing for people who normally would not be on the list for social housing, for example homeless people, ex-offenders and former substance abusers.”

UK government statistics estimate that there are around 600,000 empty abandoned properties in the country and more than one million people are waiting for social housing. Bighous would like to buy more properties, but Paolo acknowledges that, it is “very difficult to raise funding to support this. Generally, most people do not understand how social impact businesses operate and therefore as part of the fundraising process there is an element of education required.”

In September 2018 Paolo began his two-year, part-time MSt in Entrepreneurship degree programme at Cambridge Judge Business School. “I came to Cambridge to learn how to run a business – everything from raising finance, to structuring the company, to hiring the right people,” he says. “I just wish I would have started my studies much earlier as I have learnt a lot and would not have wasted time doing the wrong things in the early days.”

In summer 2019, he also became President of the Hughes Hall College Enterprise Society, an initiative seeking to stimulate and nourish the entrepreneurial spirit of Hughes Hall students.

Russell Gould, one of the business Mentors for the MSt in Entrepreneurship programme who worked with Paolo, said: “Bighous has obvious massive potential and is already having a life changing impact on vulnerable peoples’ lives. Paolo is the perfect entrepreneur in that he has a vision, passion and works hard to deliver this.”

Looking ahead, Paolo is exploring the potential to purchase properties in Cambridge and in London. His ultimate goal is to expand to other cities abroad where he has seen the need first-hand, such as his hometown in Italy, Pescara; Cape Town, a city where he lived and met his wife Yulia; and Paris, where he previously worked and also volunteered for the Salvation Army.

In a documentary programme that aired on the Sky Property TV channel on 28 January, construction project manager Lee Dillon said that his team renovates properties for Bighous to a specification so they don’t need much maintenance, which makes the tenants’ lives easier.

“It is the first time after a long time that I feel like I’m home,” a previously homeless tenant named Dave says in the documentary. “The life I had on the streets was difficult, but now I’m here and I feel really happy.”