The number of empty homes in England has been branded a national scandal. There were 610,000 at the last count, with 200,000 of them left vacant for more than six months. We may shake our heads and “tut” but behind every one of those problematic, uninhabited properties there is a story, and it is often quite sad.
The Empty Homes Doctor service in Leeds has heard them all and the support and advice they have given to absentee owners has resulted in more than 100 dwellings being brought back into use.
“There are a lot of emotional reasons for empty homes,” says Rob Greenland, who co-founded the non-profit making social enterprise with Gill Coupland three years ago.
“We recently had an elderly man whose wife went into care. He moved out of their house but he couldn’t bear to sell it and it was empty for seven years. The roof was leaking, there were pigeons in there and he was £7,000 in debt with the council because they had secured the property with shutters and done work to prevent it affecting the neighbours.We talked to him about what he could do and he decided to sell it to a social enterprise that renovates and lets properties. It was such a big weight off his shoulders.”
Other scenarios include issues with probate or where someone has inherited a house and doesn’t know what to do with it. Then there are cases where the owner has moved away and abandoned their home. What most people need isn’t a threatening letter, it’s a helping hand to guide them through the options available.
The Empty Homes Doctor gets £100,000 a year funding from Leeds city council and the outlay has proved a sound investment for the local authority. The city has about 4,700 empty homes and 90 per cent of them are privately owned. For every one that is brought back into use, 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 will generate £354,000.
Paul Preston’s childhood home is one of them. Paul struggled with a full-time job and his role as sole carer for his elderly mother, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s. For five years he travelled from his own home in Bingley to her house in Leeds to care for her, while battling with social services for help. Paul was close to breaking point after she died and was diagnosed with depression.
After organising the funeral, he couldn’t face selling the much-loved family home and it stood empty for almost two years.
“My parents lived there from 1954 and it was my childhood home. I knew I had to do something but I couldn’t face it so I did nothing and that caused even more stress. It was a combination of that emotional attachment and feeling completely overwhelmed,” he says.
“One day I was on the council website and noticed the empty homes doctor contact details by chance. I called and they were amazing.”
Gill Coupland and her colleague Jo Widdop met Rob at his late mother’s home to help him find a solution.
“They got reports from several estate agents on how much it was worth if I sold it as it was, how much if I did some work to it and what I needed to do if I wanted to rent it. It was clear that selling was the best thing for me and I made that informed decision thanks to them. They even helped me clear the property.
“I was upset when the house sold but I also felt relieved. My mum was so house-proud she wouldn’t have wanted it to fall into disrepair.”
The practical help and emotional support offered by the service can, in some circumstances, be backed up with £5,000 in interest free loans from Leeds city council to help bring properties up to a standard where they can be rented.
Buoyed by the success of the Empty Homes Doctor, Rob and Gill have plans for another social enterprise to provide affordable, environmentally sustainable housing to let and to sell.
“It’s very early stages but we are looking at using small parcels of brownfield land,” says Rob.
*Empty Homes Doctor, Leeds, tel: 0113 200 9383, www.emptyhomesdoctor.org.uk