Nearly a quarter of a million properties sitting empty as charity warns Government is wasting opportunities to tackle homelessness
- The number of long-term empty properties in England has risen to over 248,000 as the housing and homelessness crisis deepens.
- Councils have seen the number of empty properties rise by 24% in the last six years.
- Crisis says up to 40,000 genuinely affordable homes could be provided over the next four years if concerted action is taken to repurpose empty properties.
National homelessness charity Crisis is urging the Westminster Government to stop wasting vital opportunities to tackle the escalating housing and homelessness crisis, as the number of long-term empty properties reaches nearly a quarter of a million across England.
With the number of households trapped in temporary accommodation at record levels, social housing waiting lists topping 1.2 million and the numbers of people being forced onto the street steadily rising, Crisis says a concerted effort to repurpose long-term empty properties would be an effective way for councils to provide up to 40,000 genuinely affordable homes for people in need over the next four years.
Long-term empty properties are generally defined as being unoccupied and unfurnished for at least six months, but where the owners continue to owe council tax. These types of properties hit an all-time low in 2016 following the coalition Government’s Empty Homes Programme, which helped to reduce the number of empty properties to just above 200,000. But the scheme was subsequently ended, and the remaining mechanisms for councils to bring empty properties back into use are often overcomplicated and lacking the teeth needed to make a meaningful difference. Coupled with an overall lack of investment, the progress to tackle this scourge in towns and cities has been thrown into reverse, reaching a peak of 268,000 during the pandemic.
While the number of empty properties dropped slightly to 248,000 at the end of last year, homelessness levels have continued to rise with Crisis estimating that 242,000 households in England are experiencing the worst forms of homelessness including sleeping on the streets, sofa surfing or stuck in unsuitable temporary accommodation like nightly paid B&Bs. This, the charity says, is being driven by the rising cost of living, soaring rents and widespread destitution set against the backdrop of a crippling housing shortage.
And the issue is widespread across the country. Long-term empty properties have increased in every single region over the last six years. London, for instance, which has an acute homelessness and housing problem driven largely by affordability and a lack of housing, saw a rise of 73%. Although its share of long-term empty properties as a proportion of total housing stock remains below the national average, the capital now has over 34,000 empty properties.
Similarly, the East of England, South East and the West Midlands saw the number of properties sitting empty increase by a third or more across the same period.
Elsewhere, the North East bears the highest amount of long-term empty properties as a proportion of their total dwelling stock. For every 100 properties, more than 1.4 sit unoccupied for an extended period – an inefficient and wasteful record. The North West follows in second place at 1.20%. All of this, Crisis says, is indicative of a Westminster Government who has taken its eye off the ball when it comes to tackling housing and homelessness.
With housing insecurity and homelessness worsening, Crisis is demanding action from the major political parties as they prepare for party conferences in a matter of weeks. Currently, no party has made ending homelessness a priority, despite the need for urgent intervention to tackle it. Nor has the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition listed housing in their five key pledges to voters.
Crisis says that greater investment and support to repurpose empty properties into genuinely affordable homes could be part of the solution in the short term for struggling councils, who have seen their social rented housing stock steadily decline over the last decade. But this, the charity says, must be provided alongside investment in housing benefit so that it covers the cheapest third of rents and a concerted effort to deliver the 90,000 social homes needed yearly, if the Government and all political parties want to tackle homelessness for good.
Matt Downie, Crisis Chief Executive, said: “No-one should be forced to endure the pain and indignity of homelessness, especially when we have a tangible way to provide thousands with a stable and secure home.
“Through our services we see the impact our continued failure to act is having. Families with children growing up in one room, people getting ready for work in cold, draughty cars while others are given no option but to move hundreds of miles away from their jobs, schools and support networks as there are no affordable properties in their area. This isn’t right.
“Enabling councils to turn empty properties into genuinely affordable homes is a quick way for the Westminster Government to alleviate pressure on a system at breaking point and provide stable homes for people. But this isn’t a silver bullet. We also need to see greater investment in housing benefit so people can pay their rent and a national drive to build the 90,000 social homes we desperately need.
“Repurposing empty properties is also an approach that we at Crisis are backing as a solution to help end homelessness. Just this week we have proudly invested, through the Venture Studio from Crisis, in Grand Bequest – a pioneering property technology company that focuses on the regeneration of neglected and abandoned properties.
“Tackling homelessness is possible with political will – it's vital all major parties wake up to this mounting crisis if we’re to end it for good.”