A businessman who previously compared his negotiation tactics to those of a ‘rapist’ is at the centre of a mounting crisis at beleaguered Home REIT.
Christopher Downing, a property entrepreneur, sold vast amounts of housing to the landlord for the homeless before it was thrown into chaos after an attack by short-seller Fraser Perring and his outfit Viceroy Research.
Since the initial broadside in November, Home REIT has been buffeted by a series of interlocking debacles that have seen its shares suspended on the London Stock Exchange.
Questions: Christopher Downing sold Home REIT a large portion of its nearly 2,500-strong property portfolio through his social housing group Karla as well as other entities
It is facing legal disputes with several of its tenants, a detailed probe into its accounts by auditor BDO and an investigation into allegations of bribery by forensic accountant Alvarez & Marsal as well as the National Crime Agency.
Downing, 64, sold Home REIT a large portion of its nearly 2,500-strong property portfolio through his social housing group Karla as well as through other entities.
Former associates claim he has made tens of millions of pounds by selling the properties at inflated prices, allegations denied by Downing.
The debacle at Home REIT has raised fears that many of its residents, which include ex-servicemen and domestic abuse survivors, could be relocated if the group is forced to sell its portfolio amid a collapse in rental income.
But for Downing, its problems are likely to seem like a world away, with the businessman having decamped to a village on the Venetian Lagoon, in which Venice is situated, where he is planning to turn an old glass factory into a luxury hotel.
Profits from his time in property have also allowed him to amass a garage of luxury cars including a white Rolls-Royce and two Bentleys.
His reputation among several former partners, including some of Home REIT’s charity tenants, is notorious, with many accusing him of abusive behaviour, bullying and manipulation.
‘He’s very good at what he does,’ said Matt Fearnley, chief executive of Noble Tree, one of the tenant organisations currently in a dispute with Downing and Home REIT over allegations he reneged on contracts to refurbish properties used to house vulnerable people.
In a statement, Downing said there had been ‘many false and deliberately misleading accusations’ made against him.
Fortune: Downing’s property deals have allowed him to amass a garage of luxury cars including a white Rolls-Royce and two Bentleys
The statement said: ‘The truth is I’m a self-made man and have worked hard to be able to move into a €250,000 one-bedroom apartment in the Veneto region of Italy, an area known for its peace and tranquillity, which is important to me as I recover from cancer.
‘Over the last 40 years, I’ve worked in the property industry and have been well remunerated, mainly from my work in emerging markets.’
Downing said ‘like many others’ he sold properties to Home REIT at Local Housing Allowance rates and that the properties had been ‘valued by Knight Frank as instructed by Home REIT’.
He highlighted the company had confirmed it undertook ‘extensive due diligence’ prior to purchase.
‘I have gone above and beyond to ensure, through providing grant money to all social renters, that this business would be sustainable,’ Downing said, claiming he paid £20million to the renters ‘in excess’ of funds required for refurbishment works.
But during that 40-year career Downing also appeared to have cultivated a reputation for ruthlessness across multiple countries.
According to Karla’s website, in 1992 he moved to Russia shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Downing also spent time in Pakistan, South Africa and Myanmar, saying in an email seen by the Mail he had seen and done things over his career that made him ‘a deeply unpleasant person’.
In the email outlining his negotiation strategy to two prospective charity partners, Downing said: ‘We purchase properties, mostly portfolios, we try and steal them and this is what I am good at… We buy at one price, this is a negotiated price based on how cruel I can be… It can stretch from fair bid, to brutal, to rapist.’
He added the profit he and his business partners made went towards supporting an ‘outrageous lifestyle’ and warned those working with him to ‘never f*** up, never ever f*** up’.
Some who have worked with Downing have highlighted examples of his self-admitted cruelty in action.
In an email to several Home REIT employees seen by the Mail, a whistleblower alleged Downing became ‘angry and verbally abusive’ with the head of one of the charities signing property leases, who was described as being ‘financially reliant’ on his business and ‘in the early stages of pregnancy’.
Other choice language used by Downing included calling people ‘money grabbing lazy idiots’ as well as saying a female employee at one charity had ‘no use’ unless one of the bosses ‘wanted the young lady as a girlfriend’.
Downing’s previous business partners included the late Meyrick Cox, a former Goldman Sachs banker and old Etonian who attended the exclusive school alongside Boris Johnson. Cox died of cancer in 2020