The issue of empty homes in London is rarely out of the spotlight for long, especially as a source of anger and disquiet when there are so many homeless people in the city. In recent days, there has been a flurry of interest in the capital’s most famous street for vacant dwellings – The Bishops Avenue, which connects the north of Hampstead Heath with East Finchley and has long had the nickname “Billionaires Row”. I went on Eddie Nestor’s BBC Radio London show to talk about it yesterday.
Billionaires Row is noted not only for being the home street of some very rich people, but also for their absence from it. A number of the dwellings have simply been abandoned by their sometimes mysterious owners, presenting journalists with matchless opportunities for photo features of decadent dereliction over many years. But, vexing though such examples are, how big is London’s empty homes problem really? What can be done about it? And can homes left empty be used to help the homeless?
Local authorities provide figures on “empties” to the government. The most recent of these, which are for October 2018, showed that London’s 32 boroughs and the City of London between them contained 22,481 residential properties which met the government’s definition of a long-term vacant home, which is being uninhabited for more than six months.
That’s a lot of potential homes going unused. Yet it is also a very small proportion of the total number of homes in Greater London, which stands at over 3.5 million. Moreover, it is only about half as many empty homes as there were 15 years ago, when the figure stood at 42,600. This puts into perspective today’s often-made claim that there’s been a recent glut of housing units bought, often by foreigners, and simply left empty while their value soars. Indeed, that very belief has been challenged, not least in research by London School of Economics experts for Sadiq Khan.
Even so, the existence of 20-odd thousand unused homes, be they Billionaires Row mansions or run-of-the-mill flats, is obviously undesirable. It is also quite difficult to do much about them. There is national legislation enabling the government to requisition property, but the two laws in question were passed at the start of the two world wars and applied to stately homes needed for the defence of the realm. Local authorities can theoretically use compulsory purchase powers to owners of the land in question sell it to them, but these are generally used for large redevelopment schemes rather than individual homes and entail long and costly processes.
A more practical remedial measure is to increase the level of council tax applied to owners of empty homes as an incentive to do something with them. Camden Council has led the way on this, using powers introduced in 2013 to put Council Tax up by 50% if a home has been empty for two years or more. This can encourage the owner to rent the property out or sell it. If that doesn’t happen, at least the council gets a bit of extra income. In 2014, Boris Johnson, when London Mayor, told LBC Radio that he would support council tax on such homes going up by a multiple of “at least” ten. It will be interesting to see if he makes that possible should he continue to be Prime Minister after 12 December.
Another problem with the idea, often voiced, that London’s homelessness problem could be solved by simply giving empty homes to homeless people is that the numbers don’t add up. There are currently over 56,000 households of various sizes, many of them including children, in temporary accommodation in London – two-and-a-half times as many households as there are empty homes. And, of course, the homes would have to have the right number of bedrooms, have the right facilities, be in the right parts of the city and so on. Even were it legally possible to quickly and easily requisition London’s empty homes, many of them might be unsuitable for London’s homeless households in a range of ways.
There is a related issue of homes that aren’t officially long-term empty, but are lived in only occasionally – essentially second (or third, or fourth) homes. There are significant percentages of these in the City, Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea and, as Shelter’s John Bibby has shown, they present a different and trickier problem. As for London’s homelessness as a whole, there probably is no getting away from the simple, persisting need to simply build more affordable homes and finding the land and finance needed for doing it.
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