The Big Issue | How to rescue an empty house

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23-29 November 2015

How to rescue an empty house

Small, community-led organisations are leading the fight to turn derelict buildings back into homes for families

 Waiting for government or big institutions to do things for you can be frustrating at best, futile at worst. Ordinary people getting together and rolling their sleeves up is often the best way to bring about change.

Since we launched our Fill ’Em Up campaign last month, readers have informed us about the inspiring community work going on to rescue empty buildings in their neighbourhoods. In fact, local knowledge and local passion is exactly why community-led projects have been at the forefront of the most inspiring work on empty homes.

There remain 10 empty homes for every one homeless family in EnglandThere remain 10 empty homes for every one homeless family in England. It’s a disparity that motivates the work of a small charitable organisation in Yorkshire called Latch (Leeds Action to Create Homes), which now has 25 years of experience refurbishing derelict houses in the city.

Latch started back in 1989 when a group of homeless men formed a collective to renovate an empty building in the rundown area of Chapeltown, then lived in it together. Leeds City Council was impressed enough to lease them two more properties to renovate.

“The original insight was that there were lots of empty properties and lots of homeless people, and why can’t we try to do something about that?” says James Hartley, chief executive of Latch. “We’ve professionalised since then but the mission is the same: let’s do something to provide more homes for homeless people.” Latch – now a community benefit society (volunteers pictured) – has 64 properties it rents out to homeless people and those at risk of homelessness.

The organisation has been at its busiest in the past three years, thanks to the UK government’s Empty Homes Programme (EHP), which set aside £60m for community-led groups. Around £900,000 from the EHP fund helped Latch buy, do up and rent out 25 terraced homes (15 houses were brought back into use from the fund, which enabled Latch to secure loans for another 10 properties).

“It’s been a good period for us,” says Hartley. “But it’s still difficult to get our hands on empty properties at the right price, because owners have strange desires. They can hold onto the idea a property should be worth a lot, and that the housing market will turn for them in future.”

Hartley says it has cost Latch £105,000, on average, to bring each home back into use – around £70,000 to buy a derelict property, £20,000 on refurbishing and £15,000 for overheads (the cost of managing the whole process and getting tenants in).

“We did buy one house for £40,000 but I think we spent as much as £35,000 refurbishing that one. It can be a lot of work.”

Jon Fitzmaurice, director of Self Help Housing, thinks Latch and around 100 other small charities, social enterprises and community land trusts have made brilliant use of the three-year government fund, which sadly ended earlier this year. Nearly 1,500 homes were brought back into use. It was unprecedented for small groups – none of them registered housing providers – to be given money and encouragement.

“It’s been a great success,” he says. “These guys have the local knowledge, the enterprise to make things happen, and now have a track record of getting value for money.”

Fitzmaurice remains frustrated that councils and big housing associations have been sluggish about carrying on the same work. “Unfortunately some mainstream providers have become risk averse,” he explains. “They don’t want to get involved in renovating homes in empty streets because it’s messy, it’s hassle.

What’s needed now is some more capital funding from government for a further programme“We know there are organisations with the innovation and imagination,” he adds. “What’s needed now is some more capital funding from government for a further programme. Many of the small groups and projects are still viable – they’ve often been able to borrow on the back of what they’ve already done. But the work is plateauing now, unfortunately, at a time when we really need to be doing more.”

Some local authorities have engaged: 13 of Latch’s empty properties were leased to them for nothing by Leeds City Council. Stoke’s housing department has been active too, offering prospective homeowners derelict council properties for £1 and creating a loan scheme for their refurbishment.

But some local authorities, particularly those in the north of England, are holding onto the same unrealistic expectations as private owners, imagining lucrative future development deals will arrive soon to transform their fortunes. They remain far too content to leave great swathes of neighbourhoods boarded up in the meantime. It’s a terrible waste. The lesson from the community groups’ renovation revolution is simple: if you can’t use them, hand them over to those who can.

TAKING ACTION TO SAVE HOMES

Latch volunteers, who renovate empty places for homeless people
A small two-bedroom terraced house in Nowell Crescent in the Harehills area of Leeds, had been empty for several years. It had been used as a drug squat for a period, so by the time it came to the attention of Latch (Leeds Action on Empty Homes) it was in really bad condition. Plumbing and heating systems had been stripped, stolen for scrap, and flooding had damaged the ground floor and cellar.

Latch bought the property from the absent owner for £52,000, and spent another £30,000 on structural repairs and the fitting of a new kitchen, bathroom and heating system. Once all the decorating had been done, it was let out by Latch to a young family on the housing waiting list – a family at risk of homelessness.

The house had become a home once again.

Join Fill ‘Em Up, our Empty Buildings Campaign

The Big Issue believes empty buildings offer a great chance to increase housing supply. We want to see the following:

• More support and funding for community-led empty homes projects.

• More public bodies engaging with community projects ready and willing to make the most of empty buildings.

• More homeless people getting the chance to work on refurbishment projects.

Britain also needs new ideas. Please get in touch and tell us your own suggestions for transforming empty buildings in your town or city. Contact editorial@bigsissue.com or tweet @bigissue

 

 

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