Margaret Thatcher’s decision to sell council houses to the public is, according to most analysts, the root cause of the UK housing crisis. Since then, it is argued, the stock of social housing has declined as the number of private homeowners has increased. There is truth to this theory, but it is only part of the story.
Social housing may be on the decline, but building more of it isn’t the only solution. Take a look around the country and you won’t have to go too far to find at least one abandoned, empty, or boarded up property. Building more affordable houses is surely a step forward, but before we do that, we should take a look at the empty property that surround us, and ask why we can’t make use of those when so many people are desperately in need.
How do properties become ‘abandoned’?
‘Abandonment’ has a specific legal definition which not all boarded up buildings will meet. For all intents and purposes, though, these buildings are empty. Yet many of them, with a little work, would make perfectly acceptable homes.
This became particularly apparent in the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy. At the time of the fire, 150 social housing flats sat empty just streets away in Chelsea. Months later, they are still empty, as former Grenfell residents stay night-after-night in temporary hotel accommodation. The housing association that owns the properties is holding them empty, pending a planned refurbishment, as they are apparently unfit for habitation.
Granted, it makes no sense to move Grenfell survivors into yet more unsafe housing, but letting these houses fall into this state to begin with, and taking such a long time to renovate them is the real issue. A freedom of information request from the Guardian found that six housing associations own empty properties in the Kensington and Chelsea area. Many of these empty houses have renovation plans awaiting the go-ahead, but some of these plans have been held-up or declined because they do not include enough affordable social housing for rent, instead focusing on high-cost luxury homes.
Holdups like these leave thousands of buildings empty, but it’s not just housing associations that are to blame. In 2016, the think tank Policy Exchange found that disused commercial land and buildings could provide as many as 420,000 homes in London alone. This would make a huge difference to the housing crisis.
How could we put vacant properties to good use?
When Jeremy Corbyn suggested rehousing Grenfell survivors in neighbouring empty homes owned by the rich, the right wing press reacted with scorn, reporting that this amounted to “seizing” property.
It’s clear that harnessing empty property for the homeless will sit uneasily with some, especially those who own the empty houses and are hoping they turn out to be profitable investments. But there is a way it could work for both property owners and those who need housing.
Property protection firm Oaksure have called property guardianship “the most effective method of securing a building without tenants”. While not tenants, property guardians live in buildings that would otherwise be empty to ensure they are protected from squatters and vandals. In some cases, this process would allow those in need to move into empty buildings immediately.
At least as a temporary solution, property guardianship will lessen the number of people living on the streets, and make use of thousands of empty buildings currently going to waste. But in the long-term, we need to come up with a permanent solution. The only way to do that is to legislate against leaving properties completely empty for extended periods.
Earlier in the year it emerged that property development firm Land Securities had left several buildings vacant for seven years. The sale of the buildings originally stipulated 63 affordable homes be built, alongside the luxury apartments and offices Land Securities wanted to develop. The company dropped the whole project, however, after demand for luxury apartments in the area declined.
On occasions like this, developers should either be compelled to build at least the affordable housing component of their deal, to allow those in need to take up residence if possible, or to return the land to local councils who will then do the work. Whatever the solution, developers and councils need to act fast.