Comment

18.12.15

Transforming empty homes into affordable alternatives

Source: Dec/Jan 16

Helen Williams, chief executive of Empty Homes, on why the organisation will be looking at how local authorities and housing providers are investing in empty properties.

According to government statistics, there were over 200,000 homes classified as long-term empty (that is, empty for more than six months) in England, in the snapshot that was taken in October 2014. Our analysis suggests that there were higher levels of homes recorded as long-term empty in areas with higher levels of deprivation and lower than average house prices. 

High concentrations of empty homes are apparent in neighbourhoods with a long history of abandoned properties, and continued high turnover. Sometimes this can be linked to concentrations of poor-quality private rented sector housing in the area, with people also perceiving a better quality of life and opportunities in other neighbourhoods. This points to the importance of private rented sector improvement schemes that seek to address the standard of housing and its management, as well as the importance of neighbourhood improvement schemes that seek to improve the local environment, look of an area and its facilities. All this is not only important in addressing the issues faced by people living in those areas, but can also attract new people and reduce the high churn of people in a neighbourhood. This in turn should help stem the flow of properties that become and then get stuck empty over the long term.  

Bringing them back into use 

One option that has made such a difference is where local authorities or housing providers buy or lease empty properties to bring them back into use as affordable housing for people on the council’s housing waiting list. This can be part of a neighbourhood regeneration scheme where there are high levels of empty homes, or used more generally to create new affordable housing across England. In many cases empty properties require quite a bit of refurbishment to bring them up to decent homes standards. In some cases, more radical changes are made to create sought-after homes, such as knocking neighbouring ‘two ups, two downs’ into one larger home. 

There appears to be no shortage of people wishing to move into such refurbished homes. Even when they have been empty for years and even in areas previously labelled as ‘low demand’. This is not surprising when you look at how unaffordable good quality housing is to people across England. Even in areas where prices seem low, relative to the highest levels in England, they are not low relative to the incomes of many people. 

Dedicated government grant programmes for buying or leasing and refurbishing empty homes may have ended in March 2015, but there is still an imperative to continue schemes to create new homes from empty properties. 

New homes 

Of course, to address the scale of housing need in England, we also need to invest in building new homes that are affordable too. At Empty Homes we will be tracking how the national Affordable Homes Programme continues to support both. At the same time, we will also be looking at how local authorities and housing providers are able to directly invest in empty properties and attract other investment for this vital work. We hope to spread what is working to encourage copycats around the country, to see wasted empty properties transformed into much-needed affordable housing. 

At the same time, other empty properties will have a new future after they are sold or rented out privately again. And local authorities can demonstrate, by providing advice and guidance to individual property owners, that they can help to drive down the number of long-term empty homes in their area. 

In some cases, locally-available financial assistance can also help owners who are unable to raise the money to refurbish their property to bring it back into use. No doubt, New Homes Bonus payments for reductions in long-term empty homes year-on-year have helped to focus the minds of some local authorities. 

In addition, tackling empty homes is seen to address local people’s concerns. In a poll we commissioned from ComRes in late 2014, 36% of British adults said empty homes were a blight on their area, and 74% wanted their local authority to give it a greater priority.

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