Empty homes: Properties with potential

Britain is in the midst of an empty housing crisis with a million homes vacant. But now savvy self-help groups and pro-active local councils are trying to bring them back to life. Graham Norwood reports
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With first-time buyers struggling to get onto the bottom rung of the property ladder, 1.7m people waiting for social housing and a government planning to build three million new homes by 2020, you could be forgiven for thinking the average British street, close or avenue was full to bursting. It will no doubt surprise you then to learn then that, despite a housing crisis, over one in 20 homes lie empty. And that this month, for the first time ever, the number of residential properties that have been empty for six months or longer has exceeded one million.

“About 50 per cent are empty for transient reasons, such as the owner dying or having financial difficulties. However the other half are empty due to long-term failures such as abandoned regeneration schemes which leave compulsorily-purchased homes boarded up, blighting entire areas,” says David Ireland, head of the Empty Homes Agency.

“Most empty houses are privately owned. But the empty public sector homes tend to be concentrated and more obvious,” he adds.

The Empty Homes Agency is an independent charitable group campaigning for properties to be bought back into use. It has used data from councils, land registries and other charities to produce the one million total projection.

The largest numbers of empty homes are in north west and south east England, Yorkshire, Scotland and Northern Ireland but the problem afflicts every rural and urban area. For example in the Cornish villages of St Columb Minor and Trel

oggan, over 50 Ministry of Defence homes have been left empty after a local RAF base down-sized; while in the Anfield area of Liverpool there are over 2,000 empty homes as a result of a regeneration project that has been shelved.

The government’s approach has seen local authorities as the major vehicle for identifying empty homes and either encouraging their owners to bring them back into use, or taking more draconian measures to reclaim them.

In Devon, Exeter council and several local housing associations operate Exlet, where owners of empty homes are incentivised to let them out to those on the city’s waiting list for at least five years. In return for a management fee the owner gets guaranteed rental income, a pledge that the property is returned in good condition, and has maintenance checks.

Leaving aside the morality of homes lying empty in areas of housing need – there are over 6,000 households on Exeter council’s waiting list – the Exlet scheme emphasises how much owners lose by not letting their vacant properties.

“Owners can lose as much as £10,000 per year through lost rent, repairs and security measures, especially if the property becomes a target for vandals” says Laura Newton, the city councillor responsible for housing. Over 1,000 homes in Exeter alone have been coaxed into the scheme since it started in 1996.

Councils in Kent take a different approach, releasing funds directly to private owners to renovate their derelict properties and return them to the housing stock.

Richard Squirrel received an interest-free loan from Kent County Council to fit a new roof and windows, install central heating and re-wire his three bedroom house in Ramsgate, which had been empty since 2005. “The loan has made the difference from the house falling into further disrepair, and turning it into a new home,” he says.

Other Kent initiatives have included identifying an empty Thanet house with major structural defects. Its owner had died and after failing to trace his family members, the council effectively took possession of it using compulsory purchase powers. The house has now been transformed into four housing association apartments for sale.

Exeter’s and Kent’s activities are seen by the Empty Homes Agency as examples of how pro-active local authorities can combat the spread of empty homes, but they are the exception to the rule. A major hurdle for councils is that they must usually rely on the cooperation of owners, as more coercive measures are difficult to implement.

Small-scale initiatives on estates or single streets can be more cost-effective and quicker, says David Ireland. Self-help groups have sprung up in recent years, identifying empty homes and agreeing with their owners – individuals, councils or housing associations – that they would be rented at sub-market levels in return for the properties being renovated by volunteers, often including homeless people. The renovations are then funded by voluntary donations.

Canopy, a Leeds community group, has renovated nearly 40 homes across the city using 400 volunteers. While the East Cleveland Housing Youth Trust spends £10,000 to £15,000 on each empty property it renovates, and currently has 11 tenants. Other self-help groups exist in London, Middlesbrough and Hull.

“Councils have complexities that can be slow and expensive. These self-help groups are different, they seem to succeed despite the system,” explains David Ireland. “They may be the way forward.”

Derelict to des-res: Empty home rescue

* Councils have databases of empty private homes. Public sector homes are usually more obvious – health trusts, the MOD and the Prison Service supply lists.

* Ownership of private homes in England and Wales can be traced on www.landregisteronline.gov.uk. Use www.ros.gov.uk in Scotland and www.lrni.gov.uk in Northern Ireland.

* You can urge your local authority to acquire an empty home via a Compulsory Purchase or Empty Dwelling Management Order, but these are slow and seldom used.

* To set up a self-help housing project visit these useful websites www.self-help-housing.org, www.cds.coop, www.charity.commission.co.uk, and www.emptyhomes.com.

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