Monday, August 10, 2009

Can I have an Empty Home? Yes You Can!

One of the commonest questions we are asked at the Empty Homes Agency goes something like this “I need a home, but I can’t afford one, can I have an empty one?”

For reasons that are pretty obvious it’s a question we are getting asked more and more often. Our answer I’m pleased to report is the Obama like “Yes you can” In fact even better than that we can sometimes even offer a choice. Our answer goes something like this:

“First of all you can borrow one. The best way to do this is through a shortlife housing cooperative. The cooperative usually takes out a lease on an empty property, puts it into shape and rents it out to its members at low rents. There are lots of cooperatives in London and the south of England such as Westminster Housing Cooperative that operates across London. But shortlife is more sparsely distributed around the midlands and the North of England.

Secondly you can rent an unused property. A similar approach to shortlife has lead to the amazing growth of property guardian schemes. An idea imported for the Netherlands, companies such as Ad Hoc and Camelot have developed it into a flourishing business. Available for employed single people and couples in town and country across the UK and Ireland

Thirdly for a more involved approach there are a number of brilliant self-help housing charities that train homeless people up with building skills and enable them to do up empty properties and create their own homes. The properties are generally surplus social housing. Charities such as Latch and Community Campus 87 lead a growing sector largely based in cities in the North of England.”

Many people are happy with our answer, but many I suspect would like something else. Apparently, even now 90% of us want to be owner-occupiers, and there’s no reason to think that people in housing need don’t have similar aspirations to the rest of the population.

And why not? You should also be able to buy a property cheaply and do it up yourself. In previous recessions “homesteading” has been available to people who would otherwise would be unable to afford homeownership. Councils and Housing Associations disposed of their properties at heavily discounted prices. Newcastle City Council even sold flats for 50p each in the 1990s.

Homesteading schemes helped people with renovating the property sometimes with the help of a grant, sometimes with training. Conditions were normally applied to ensure that only people who intend to become part of the community bought the properties. Speculators were heavily discouraged. This meant that areas with high levels of vacancy and high turnover of residents were stabilised with new long-term occupants who had a strong investment in the community.
Just the ticket for regenerating communities and giving people what they want. It has worked brilliantly in previous recessions, there is no reason why it won’t work in this one. Indeed it could work on privately owned properties acquired especially for the purpose. If you are a council or a property owner who is interested please let me know and let’s make that answer to “can I have an empty home?” even better.

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