Making the most of empty homes

Edinburgh needs to get a lot more serious about tackling private sector empty homes, argues Susan Rae.

[avatar user=”susanrae” size=”original” align=”right”]Cllr Susan Rae[/avatar]

Hardly a week goes past without the Evening News highlighting the scale of the housing crisis facing Edinburgh. Bloated house prices, over-stretched homelessness services and an acute shortage of affordable homes all exact a punishing toll on our capital city. It punishes family life and our economy – a healthy economy needs places for workers to live. And it adds to the city’s problems of traffic congestion as people on modest incomes are forced into commuting from further and further afield.

Nowhere are Scotland’s housing problems more acute than here in Edinburgh. But the city also has another unenviable first – nowhere in Scotland has more long term empty private homes: just under 5,000 at the last count. These are not council or housing associations homes; they are homes in the hands of private owners. And they are not homes that are empty for a short while between occupiers; these are all empty longer than 6 months, in some cases for years.

Why is this important? Well, every home lying empty is a missed opportunity to tackle the housing shortage. In a city where there is mounting pressure to build on precious green space or the Green Belt, it is astonishing that the possible use of empty property is not factored in as part of the solution. Empty homes can also cause blight on streets and, at worst, can be a magnet for vandalism, graffiti or arson.

Faced with such a compelling case, surely the City Council is doing what it can to tackle empty homes?

Sadly, not yet. Edinburgh is one of a dwindling number of councils not to have a dedicated empty homes service. At present, the council oversees the re-use of about 20 private empty homes a year. At that rate it would take 250 years to tackle the backlog. Compare this to Glasgow, which has returned almost 470 homes to use over 2 years or the much smaller area of Stirling with over 200 homes recovered since 2013.

The main factor is achieving these numbers is having a dedicated member of staff: last year 97% of the empty homes brought back into use in Scotland were in council areas with a dedicated member of staff.

The good news is that councils which up their game can pay for the service from extra income. In those councils a dedicated focus on empty homes has led to more properties being correctly classified for council tax purposes and so bringing in more revenue and reducing debt which outweighs the cost of additional staff time. So empty homes work can be funded alongside a programme of providing new affordable homes: not a penny is lost to the budget for new homes by focusing on existing homes.

The case can be made even more compelling. As well as having the highest number of empty private homes Edinburgh also has the highest use of bed and breakfast hostels for homeless people, costing millions of pounds a year. Compare this to one west coast council which has targeted empty homes work to provide temporary housing for homeless people, allowing it to phase out bed and breakfast hostels: a win-win-win, by anyone’s reckoning.

The City Council’s current approach to empty homes is a lost opportunity. It flies in face of Scottish Government advice. It turns its back on good practice in other councils. Until the council commits to a dedicated empty homes service it will continue to let down people looking for a home and neighbours putting up with properties disfiguring the street.