Sad and empty home full of happiness thanks to the doctor

The Hunslet Club, Leeds, refurbishing a propertyin Beeston, Leeds. Pictured (left to right) Danny Dickinson, from Gipsil based in Leeds, and Dennis Robins, CEO of the Hunslet Club.

The Hunslet Club, Leeds, refurbishing a propertyin Beeston, Leeds. Pictured (left to right) Danny Dickinson, from Gipsil based in Leeds, and Dennis Robins, CEO of the Hunslet Club.

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Lateral thinking brought a long-term empty home back to use and now a family, neighbours and a local charity are reaping the rewards. Sharon Dale reports.

Neighbours despaired for almost two decades over the derelict semi that blighted their street. It attracted vandals, squatters, arsonists, rats and regular visits from the police.

Behind the smashed windows and crumbling brickwork lay a sad story. The property in Beeston, Leeds, had been inherited by an elderly person who lived elsewhere. Emotionally crippled by her parents’ death, she felt unable to sell the house she once called home.

Compulsory purchase proved the only solution and the semi was set to go the way of all such property: sold at auction to a buy-to-let landlord and rented out for the highest possible price, that is until a ground-breaking alternative was suggested.

Why not sell the “long-term empty” to a local charity looking to invest its savings in property, use it as a training ground for young people keen to learn building skills and let it at an affordable rent to someone in desperate need of a home?

The brilliant bit of lateral thinking was applied by the Empty Homes Doctor service, a pioneering social enterprise backed by Leeds City Council. It specialises in bringing empty homes back into use by helping owners find solutions but this kind of intervention was a first.

“We knew the house and we knew the neighbours were at their wits’ end. We also knew of a local charity looking for property. It seemed like a great solution and the council was very supportive. They agreed that the social benefits would be massive,” says Empty Homes Doctor co-founder Gill Coupland.

Instead of going to auction, the semi was sold to The Hunslet Club, a charity at the heart of the South Leeds community, which helps young people fulfil their potential. It runs sports groups, activities, events and vocational training courses.

Its chief executive Dennis Robbins says: “We run construction skills courses for 14 to 16 year olds but one of the biggest issues we have when trying to place young people in apprenticeships is their lack of experience on building sites. That is problematic because of health and safety, so we came up with the idea of finding an empty property for students to work on.

“We had funds that were earning very little in interest in the bank and we wanted to make a social investment. We thought buying a house would work well as we could renovate it to a high standard, giving students work experience, and then let it at an affordable rent to someone in need.”

The trainees worked alongside a ost of professional contractors on a renovation project that cost £35,000. Meanwhile, the Hunslet Club invited tenancy applications from its 2,500 members in Hunslet, Belle Isle, Middleton, Holbeck and Beeston.

The three bedroom house is now let at £495 a month rather than the £650 going rate. The new resident is Sue Draper, 38, and her 13 year-old son, Luke.

Sue, who works as travel co-ordinator, lived with her parents. She was unable to find a council property and couldn’t afford the deposit and bond for a private let. The Hunslet Club house is her first home.

“My mum and dad were very supportive and let us live on the top floor of their house but finally having our own space is wonderful. The Hunslet Club is a brilliant place and it brings a lot of joy to a lot of people but it has changed our life by letting us rent this house,” she says.

“I love having my own kitchen, doing my own food shop and being able to invite friends round. It’s also great to have that sense of pride. My dad helped decorate Luke’s room and we cut the hedge so the house has kerb appeal.”

The neighbours are also delighted, which means that bringing one empty property back to life this way has added up to an awful lot of happiness, while providing a revenue stream for the club.

“Buying property was a big step for a small charity like ours but the social value of it has been amazing. The young people who worked on it were happy to get some experience, the neighbours are thrilled, we’ve improved someone’s life by providing them with a home and we are getting a 7.5% return on our investment, as well as having an asset,” says Dennis, who is now looking for a second property.

“Having seen the social benefit, the club’s long-term ambition is to own several properties in South Leeds.

*Anyone interested in selling a run-down property in South Leeds to the Hunslet Club charity can email drobbins@hunslet.org.uk

* At the last count, there were 610,000 empty homes in England, with 200,000 of them left vacant for more than six months. The Empty Homes Doctor in Leeds is a pioneering free service supported by Leeds city council. It offers help and advice to absentee owners and has brought over 100 dwellings being brought back into use.

The service gets £100,000 a year funding from the local authority but the council gets a New Homes Bonus from the government, which equates to six years’ worth of council tax receipts on each property. The 59 homes brought back into service in 2014 generated £354,000. www.emptyhomesdoctor.org.uk

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