Empty properties: part of the equation in housing supply

Empty Homes Week (28th November – 2nd December) provides an opportunity to reflect on the travesty that there are around 200,000 homes in England which have been empty for more than six months.

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However, Britain remains in the middle of an enormous housing crisis where many people live in a home which is neither decent nor affordable.

There are community-led groups that really understand the needs of the vulnerable people in their communities and that create affordable housing by bringing empty homes back into use. These groups are using this wasted and overlooked stock to boost housing supply in areas where people are in real need of homes.

Beyond the brand new plasterboard and freshly painted walls which go towards the physical renovations of bringing an empty property back into use, lives are being dramatically improved, as well as buildings.

Take Natasha: she’s a single-mum living in Hull with her two-year old daughter, working part-time in a large supermarket. Natasha was privately renting a property from an acquaintance, however, when the property owner unexpectedly decided to sell the property, Natasha’s life was thrown into turmoil and uncertainty, with the threat of eviction hanging over her.

Like many people in low-income employment, Natasha did not have the necessary savings to enable her to put down a deposit on another privately rented property and was advised by the council that she mustn’t do anything to make herself intentionally homeless, including leaving the property willingly, therefore she remained living in the property with her bags packed, anxiously awaiting the bailiffs, feeling stranded, helpless and in limbo.

Concerned for her daughter, Natasha was fearful of being forced into unsuitable temporary accommodation, or worse still, having nowhere at all to sleep.

Fortunately for Natasha, she was helped by Giroscope, a community-led organisation in Hull. Giroscope helps people with housing and homelessness issues. It has become an expert in bringing empty properties back into use and has recently completed its 100th property.

Support from Giroscope – which does not charge letting agent fees or require a deposit – gave Natasha and her daughter a recently refurbished two-bedroomed home of their own, where they can now settle without fear of eviction.

Converting empty homes can’t single-handedly solve the housing supply crisis, nevertheless it still offers a significant opportunity to provide genuinely affordable homes, more cheaply than building new homes.

What Giroscope and many other community-led housing projects have proved in the last five years is that the right mix of funding can unlock the significant benefits of bringing empty homes back into use; benefits which go further than the provision of homes for those who need them.

Neighbourhoods have been transformed, jobs have been created and community-led housing providers have been able to address the ongoing issue of future sustainability. Yet despite this, last year the government’s Empty Homes Community Grants Programme ended which means, without an alternative, many of the organisations will struggle to maintain the momentum they have built.

Successful and innovative collaboration between many parties have had an important part to play in the success to date, including local authorities, lenders, owners of empty properties, housing associations, socially minded investors and philanthropic organisations.

However, in the absence of a central government funding programme, these parties face a greater challenge and will need even more collaboration and inventiveness as well as a single minded determination that empty properties remain a valid cost effective source of supply of affordable homes

The lack of funding in this area has meant grants, such as those given by the Nationwide Foundation and LandAid earlier this year were in high demand.  

The two foundations committed over £1.7m in 2016 to empty homes projects across the UK, including providing funding to Giroscope in Hull. LandAid’s funding is helping Giroscope to renovate two large houses to provide emergency accommodation for eight young ex-offenders in severe housing need.

Meanwhile, funding from the Nationwide Foundation, which included funding towards the home that Natasha now lives in, is going toward nine houses and also includes opportunities for volunteers to gain work experience and skills.

The issue of housing supply is talked about daily by housing commentators and government alike, but there needs to be a greater recognition of the possibilities of utilising existing supply more effectively.

Empty properties’ redevelopment needs to be embraced and maximised, so that more people like Natasha who are on the brink of homelessness can be given a decent affordable home.

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