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How repurposing empty properties could have a real impact on reducing homelessness

Calum McGregor, Senior Digital Campaigns Officer

A quarter of a million properties are sitting empty across England. Not repurposing them is a missed opportunity to tackle homelessness.

A safe and settled home is the foundation on which people can thrive and build a better future for themselves. But the troubling fact about England today is that an increasing number of us are unable to access this fundamental human need.

And, despite a desperate need for housing, hundreds of thousands of properties across the country are lying empty, dormant and unused - a huge, missed opportunity to tackle the housing and homelessness crisis.

We must fix this national scandal and turn these empty properties into homes that can help end homelessness.

A new national picture

A woman standing in the hallway of a house holding a cardboard box

Our latest research paints a new national picture of how many empty properties there are across England, and what could be done to turn them into genuinely affordable homes. The findings are alarming – but also cause for hope.

Long-term empty properties are those that are 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 of 200,000 in 2016, following the impact of the coalition Government’s Empty Homes Programme.

Since then, the number of long-term empty properties in England has rocketed to more than 248,000 – an increase of 24% in the past six years.

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, the cost of inaction is growing.

But there's hope: our modelling shows that a concerted effort to repurpose long-term empty properties could provide up to 40,000 genuinely affordable homes for people in need over the next four years.

While this isn’t a silver bullet, repurposing empty properties could provide a lifeline for thousands of people facing homelessness and locked out of renting.

A wasted opportunity

No-one should be forced to endure the pain and indignity of homelessness, especially when we have a tangible and effective 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. It's unacceptable.

The current lack of government action on empty properties means we are wasting a key opportunity to tackle the housing and homelessness.

From empty properties to genuinely affordable homes

So, what can we do to bring more empty properties back into use as genuinely affordable homes?

Greater investment and support to repurpose empty properties into homes people can afford could form a vital part of the solution to the housing crisis for struggling councils, who have seen their social rented housing stock gutted over the last decade.

We know that this approach works – the coalition government’s Empty Homes Program significantly reduced the number of empty properties by over 20% - progress that has since been reversed.

But these interventions must come alongside an end to the housing benefit freeze. Without investment to increase housing benefit so that it covers the cheapest third of rents, those of us on the lowest incomes will continue to be locked out of the safe, decent home we all need.

And we must make a concerted effort to deliver the 90,000 social homes we need every year if the Government and all political parties want to seriously tackle homelessness for good.

Politicians need to act

With housing insecurity and homelessness worsening, we're 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. The government and all major parties must wake up to this mounting crisis.

Tackling the scourge of empty properties and repurposing them as genuinely affordable homes, alongside ending the freeze in housing benefit, is an effective way to start – and one that all parties should get behind.

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