Restoring empty homes is one of the best ways of ensuring the best use of Scotland’s housing stock. Frances Snee gives a day in the life of an Empty Homes Adviser.
I’ve only just put the phone down, but it’s already ringing again. It’s Margaret. She’s slow to share her story but once she gets going she tells me she loves where she lives and used to know all her neighbours – including an older lady who once lived next door. Margaret tells me her neighbour passed away, leaving the property to her son who planned to rent it, or sell it. There was a flurry of activity at first, she says, but over time the painters and decorators disappeared, potential buyers were stopped in their tracks by the sight of the place and eventually even her neighbour’s son stopped coming to the house.
That was three years ago. Today the house remains empty.
As she speaks, Margaret paints an all too familiar picture: an overgrown garden taken over by weeds and litter, a hub for young people to congregate late at night and herself – a neighbour fearful of what’s going on just next door.
Margaret says she just wants to know what can be done to get it occupied again. She rightly makes the point that many young families in her area would love to live in a house just like it – and she would love to have neighbours again instead of the shell of a home next door.
I reassure Margaret that I’ll do my best to help. I am, after all, an advisor on Scotland’s free national empty homes helpline – run by housing charity Shelter Scotland and funded by the Scottish Government.
After saying goodbye to Margaret, my first port of call is to contact Kelly who works as a housing improvement officer for empty homes at Argyll & Bute Council – Margaret’s area.
Kelly’s patch covers 200 miles from the top to bottom and covers one of the most diverse areas in Scotland. She helped set up the Argyll & Bute Area Property Action Group which includes a range of property experts who often put their heads together to find solutions to homes just like the one Margaret is living next to.
Over half of Scotland’s councils have at least one dedicated empty homes officer in place and some of them more than that. More than half of Scotland’s local authorities have set themselves a target from bringing long term empty home back into use.
When I get calls from people like Margaret, or even owners of empty homes who don’t know where to start to bring them back into use, I refer their report onto an empty homes officer where they are in place, offering support and linking into best practice. For areas without an empty homes officer I provide the details of the best person in that local authority to contact, suggesting helpful questions to ask and giving information about what approaches can work.
In Margaret’s case, she’s in luck. She’ll have Kelly to help her through the process in the coming months to bring her neighbour’s empty home back into use.
So why is it so important to bring empty homes back into use? The numbers speak for themselves.
It’s estimated that there are 27,000 long term empty homes in Scotland. Meanwhile, there are 150,500 families and individuals on social housing waiting lists and a huge demand for private renting, so it’s easy to see the benefit of getting these home occupied again.
There were 36,400 homeless applications last year and currently 10,000 families and individuals remain in temporary accommodation. My work, and the work of the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, benefits everyone by increasing the housing supply. It won’t solve Scotland’s housing crisis on its own, but it can address one symptom of it.
It can also make good financial sense. On average, it costs £15,000 to bring a long term empty home up to standard for re use. Compare this with the £100,000, estimated cost of building a new home from scratch and it’s clear to see the incentives.
I’m often asked ‘who in their right mind’ would leave a house they own to rot away – why not sell it or rent it out. Well, it is not always that simple. It’s important to remember that no one sets out to be an owner of an empty home, especially when it’s estimated that a long term empty property can cost the owner up to £7,000 a year. So along with the constant worry and the not knowing where to start, owners can be seriously out of pocket. Empty homes are more about people than about property. This is something I hear my colleagues in the Scottish Empty Homes Officer Network say a lot.
Some owners have inherited a property and there can be a lot of strong emotions tied up in it. For others, their circumstances have changed and the property has fallen off their radar. Being introduced to an expert who is genuinely interested and on hand to provide help and motivation can be a huge relief and provide the help and motivation needed to get started again.
That’s where I come in.
The national Empty Homes Advice Service was launched on 16th June of this year. This is a new addition to the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership which exists to help councils and their partners pursue work to bring private sector homes back into use. It acts as the first port of call for anyone with an interest in getting empty properties occupied again. I speak to neighbours, owners, local organisations and councils – anyone with a stake in bringing long term empty homes back into use. I can provide information on where empty homes grants and loans are available throughout the country and link into local Empty Homes Matchmaker Schemes.
One of the many properties that the Empty Homes Partnership has brought back into use.
The Empty Homes Partnership host an online group where the Empty Homes Officer Network communicate every day. For staff who are sometimes the only person in their workplace doing that role it’s a supportive virtual workplace. It’s a good place to share what works and what’s available.
Through the knowledge I’ve gained from the Officer Network I know that Margaret will get the help she needs. By phoning us she has started the process to bring her neighbours house back into use.
I know this because since its launch, the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership has helped to transform almost 1,000 empty properties into homes again. Margaret’s neighbouring property may just be number 1,001.
If you are concerned about an empty property in your area, or if you own an empty home and need advice, contact Frances on email@example.com or telephone: 0344 515 1941.