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A community-driven response to the housing crisis

Anna croppedAnother day, another story bemoaning Britain’s housing crisis: soaring prices; smaller dwellings; a decline in house building relative to population growth. Let’s not forget the nearly 2 million people on the waiting list for social housing stock shortage fill the headlines, a potential solution lies in wait.

That solution is empty property. According to the most recent figures, over 600, 000 properties in the country lie empty; over a third of these for a period of longer than six months. It’s easy to look at this figure aghast and get bogged down in the negatives. After all, there is a horrible irony in the fact that while hundreds of thousands across the country don’t have a room to their name, over half a million potential homes lie vacant.

But instead of getting disheartened, why not look to the hundred odd local organisations who are taking advantage of these resources for the benefit of the wider community under the DCLG’s Empty Homes Community Grants Programme which runs until March 2015?

As a result of research carried out by the Third Sector Research Centre in collaboration with Self-Help-Housing.org, the government granted around £50m in funding to grassroots organisations which enables them to acquire or lease vacant properties with the express aim of bringing them back to life for the provision of affordable housing.

No two groups are the same. Some – like Giroscope in Hull or Community Campus in Middlesbrough – have been going for years, others are just starting out. Likewise, the modus operandi differs significantly from project to project.

Habitat for Humanity in London for instance rely on volunteers to help carry out renovation works. For others, the properties are the ideal location to show fledgling apprentices (usually young people previously not in education or training) the ropes. Upon completion, these once crumbling, sparse buildings are transformed into vibrant and colourful homes for individuals who – for whatever reason – may before have found themselves without a suitable place to live. This includes groups at risk of homelessness; young people; and those experiencing mental ill health.

The groups are scattered throughout the country, and word of their success is spreading. Local MP visits, national media coverage and prime television slots have all given these projects a chance to showcase some of the incredible things they have achieved.

Of course it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Trying to bring a property that’s been lying empty for months, if not years, back to use is not the most straightforward of tasks. On top of the usual array of repair works (faulty structures, hidden damp) groups often had to negotiate a range of logistical issues – such as identifying absentee owners; persuading them to grant a lease or sell; and working with both contractors and trainees.

Working through these difficulties can’t have been easy, but it did provide organisations with valuable knowledge about the renovation process – particularly for those new to the field. Some, like Phases in London, have shared their experience in the hope that it will help others. What repeatedly emerges is the importance of local knowledge and sheer persistence.

As well as offering their support throughout the programme, HACT and Self Help Housing have been collecting an array of stories from these organisations. Through all the diversity, a few common threads have emerged: community, inclusivity, perseverance and passion. These groups and their projects are where we should be looking for solutions to the housing crisis. Of course, it is one piece of a bigger puzzle – but a very significant piece, judging by the direct beneficiaries who have not been shy in proclaiming their gratitude for the groups that have worked alongside them. One tenant of Latch in Leeds described how ‘from the first phone call, there was a sense of “there’s someone here who actually cares about what’s happening to you”’.

Wouldn’t it be great if there could be more experiences like this going forward? There is certainly appetite from organisations. Not only do existing recipients of empty homes grants programme funding want to carry on and expand, but local groups who have never bid before also view this work as a new and exciting opportunity following the success of their contemporaries. It would be such a shame for some of this passion to peter out post-March 2015. Cleary, there are still countless individuals who would welcome a home. There’s no doubt that the current programme has been impressive. But 600,000 is still a lot of empty dwellings. There is more to do and organisations willing to do it. Why not give them a chance and let the community reap the rewards?

 

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