Could tackling the empty homes epidemic help solve the housing crisis?

Lee Sugden, Chief Executive, Salix Homes and NHC Board member

At the last count, there were over 600,000 empty homes in England – that equates to two years’ worth of the Government’s targets for new home completions.

Of those, more than 200,000 are classed as long-term empty, in that they’ve stood empty for more than six months, and this represents around 1% of the total housing stock in the country.

At the time of a national housing crisis, surely common sense would say that a crucial tactic for tackling this growing crisis would be to make better use of this stock we’ve already got.

With more than a million people on housing waiting lists up and down the country, it’s a travesty that houses are stood empty in our communities.

Obviously, it’s not as simple as just moving people in, firstly we need to understand the reasons why a home may lie empty.

Properties may be empty because the owner is in hospital or moved into a care home, they could even be enjoying a stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

There can be any number of reasons why a home is empty at any particular point in time, but we can’t ignore the fact that a good proportion of these properties stand unused and neglected, and with a little investment, could be brought back into use to not only provide homes for those who need them, but to help regenerate our communities.

In some areas there is a great deal of work being done by local authorities, housing providers and private landlords to tackle empty homes and the success of such projects can be seen in Salford.

Ten years ago, there were over 3,000 empty homes in Salford – that figure now stands at just over 1,000, a reduction of almost 70% – or about 1% of the city’s housing stock. Nationally, long-term empty homes have only been reduced by half that, so Salford is certainly doing something right.

We work with our partners here to utilise the Government’s Empty Homes Scheme, which ran until 2016, and provides grants to gap-fund refurbishment work. The condition being that the landlord has to guarantee the homes would be let as affordable housing for a minimum of five years. We then let the homes via our ethical private lettings agency – Salix Living.

It’s win-win for all involved. More affordable homes available for people in housing-need, a guaranteed income for the homeowner and the blight of empty buildings gone from our communities. On many occasions, this additional supply of homes to the market place has given a roof over the head of someone at risk of homelessness – an outcome that gives me a great deal of satisfaction.

But it’s not just empty homes. In Salford we’ve set our targets on empty buildings in general, which have so far included shops, pubs and even an old job centre, which we’ve successfully transformed into housing.

And the success of such schemes is now capturing national interest, after Salix Homes was this month featured in a new BBC1 documentary series – The Empty Housing Scandal – presented by the tenacious Matt Allwright, of Watchdog and One Show fame.

The series shines a spotlight on Britain’s empty homes scandal, and we were incredibly proud to show Matt some of the work we are doing to turn the tide and transform these eyesore buildings into desperately needed affordable housing.

It’s a reflection of the times, but society has changed. High streets are in decline and last orders are being called at boozers up and down the country, leaving these once thriving community hubs deserted and neglected.

Repurposing these abandoned buildings, which are often in key central locations, is about more than providing much-needed homes, it’s also about tackling the effects these eyesore sites have on communities, where they are often a magnet for anti-social behaviour.

With a little investment and creative thinking, such projects are helping to breathe life back into our high streets, regenerate communities and crucially helping to tackle the housing crisis.

You can catch The Empty Housing Scandal on iPlayer and Salix Homes features in episodes three and four.