Let’s get radical with empty homes
Official figures shows that nearly 21,000 properties across London have been empty for over six months. And that’s almost certainly an underestimate. With London’s shockingly long housing lists and the level of homelessness, the common sense option of using this huge number of empty homes has to be grasped.
To date, the Mayor and most London Boroughs have pussy-footed round this. It’s time to bring in a crack team, and make it clear there are no “no go” areas for tackling empty homes- even if their owners are the super-wealthy. People who see London’s property market as just another casino to roll the dice in should get a rude awakening.
For over 5 years now, I’ve trained solicitors and council officers in how to bring empty homes back into use. It’s not easy but the main barriers are actually a lack of political will, combined with a lack of knowledge, expertise and the officer time needed to act. The way to overcome this is to force the pace of best practice – which is exactly what the Mayor should be doing but isn’t. Why doesn’t London follow Kent’s example and bring councils together to form expert teams in tackling empty properties. In just one year they managed to reduce the numbers of empty properties by over 650 – with 67% of those properties coming from the joint task force.
London is particularly hit by absentee globe-trotting property investors. Some may be laundering money, as the Prime Minister has belatedly woken up to. But surely even a legitimate overseas investor who buys a London property but then leaves it empty is causing a nuisance, creating ghost communities and exacerbating the capital’s housing crisis.
And the legislation already exists for us to act. Local Authorities, now, have the powers to take over the management of a long term empty property, and then let it out at a market rent, deducting their costs of management and passing the remaining monies to the owner.
Yet London’s councils have chosen not to use these powers. But if they did, just think how it could transform the housing economy. Legitimate overseas investors would still be welcome to buy properties here - but not to leave them empty.
And where the property owner is either the council or a housing association, we need much tougher penalties to force them to stop leaving their homes empty. I like the option of allowing local families to apply to the courts to grant them a tenancy, if a social landlord has failed to let an empty home within six months – and if the home needs repair to make it habitable, the court should be able to allow the tenant the right to bill the council. That would concentrate minds!