Doc­tor in the house has rem­edy for empty homes

York­shire is lead­ing the way in bring­ing empty homes back into use thanks to an en­ter­pris­ing house doc­tor ser­vice. Sharon Dale re­ports.

Yorkshire Post - Property - - PROPERTY -

THE na­tion tut­ted and rolled its eyes when TV pre­sen­ter Ge­orge Clarke re­vealed the num­ber of un­in­hab­ited homes in Bri­tain and held Leeds up as a prime ex­am­ple of the prob­lem.

Over 90 per cent of the 7,000 long-term empty prop­er­ties in the city are pri­vately owned and it would’ve been easy for the coun­cil to shrug and plead “lim­ited pow­ers”. In­stead, it has in­vested £100,000 in Leeds Emp­ties, a non-profit mak­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion that aims to bring the homes back into use.

The re­sult is the Empty Homes Doc­tor, a free ser­vice un­con­strained by lo­cal gov­ern­ment bu­reau­cracy and reg­u­la­tion. Its aim is to lo­cate long-term “emp­ties”, di­ag­nose their con­di­tion and find a cure.

“The idea is to take a per­son­alised, one-to-one ap­proach and try to un­der­stand what’s go­ing on peo­ple’s lives and what sup­port they need to put their homes back into use,” says Gill Cou­p­land .

“The ben­e­fit of be­ing in­de­pen­dent means we can look more cre­atively for fund­ing and help. We also have es­tate and let­ting agents of­fer­ing dis­counts to our own­ers.”

Gill and Rob Green­land run So­cial Busi­ness Bro­kers CIC, a so­cial en­ter­prise that launched Leeds Emp­ties well be­fore Ge­orge Clarke be­gan his cam­paign­ing Great Bri­tish Prop­erty Scan­dal TV se­ries.

Their call to ac­tion drew ideas and sup­port from lo­cal busi­nesses and hous­ing of­fi­cials. The doc­tor ser­vice was one of the sug­ges­tions and, af­ter launch­ing last year, it has al­ready had suc­cess in bring­ing empty homes back into use.

“We’ve worked with over 100 own­ers and whilst ev­ery sit­u­a­tion is dif­fer­ent, there are some is­sues that come up time and again. It’s of­ten fi­nan­cial prob­lems and emo­tional at­tach­ments,” says Rob.

In Gar­forth, one owner has been strug­gling with an empty home since his mother moved away and left it to him. He des­per­ately wants to rent out the house but couldn’t af­ford to re­pair the dam­age caused by a pre­vi­ous ten­ant, who trashed the prop­erty. He is now ap­ply­ing to the gov­ern­ment’s Empty Homes Fund, a new na­tional scheme ad­min­is­tered by the Ecol­ogy Build­ing So­ci­ety. It of­fers low– cost loans of up to £15,000.

The owner of a mul­ti­ple oc­cu­pancy house in Head­in­g­ley bought the prop­erty in 2010, af­ter which it dropped in value leav­ing him in neg­a­tive eq­uity. He moved away from the area and was strug­gling with­out lo­cal knowl­edge and con­nec­tions. The Homes Doc­tor ser­vice in­tro­duced him to con­trac­tors and a lo­cal let­ting agent. The lay­out of the house was al­tered to make it a fam­ily home once again and it was let in un­der two weeks.

“We have other peo­ple who have bought a four-bed­room prop­erty in the in­ner-city, with­out a gar­den, which fam­i­lies with chil­dren don’t want and smaller fam­i­lies can’t af­ford, partly be­cause of the bed­room tax,” says Rob.

Over in North Leeds, the own­ers had been try­ing to let their empty home for a year. It had been bro­ken into and was be­com­ing a fi­nan­cial bur­den. The let­ting agent they were us­ing was in­ex­pen­sive but had no pres­ence in the area.

“We re­searched the most ac­tive agents in their area and en­cour­aged the own­ers to talk with them. The agents ad­vised them to re­duce the rent and mar­ket the prop­erty dif­fer­ently. Within ten days they found a ten­ant who signed up for a 12-month con­tract,” says Gill.

One of the most com­mon rea­sons for “emp­ties” is own­ers who in­herit a fam­ily home and cling on to it be­cause of an emo­tional at­tach­ment.

“Th­ese tend to be the hard­est type of cases. We’ve worked on three or four cases now where peo­ple have clearly had such an at­tach­ment that they’ve not done any­thing for years. One house we saw re­cently has been empty for over 30 years,” says Rob.

“We talk to them about it and en­cour­age them to find a so­lu­tion, whether that is sell­ing it or let­ting it.”

Leeds City Coun­cil is pleased with the progress so far.

Its Head of Hous­ing Part­ner­ships, John Statham, says: “We in­vested £100,000 in Leeds Emp­ties be­cause we saw the op­por­tu­nity for them to bring other or­gan­i­sa­tions, es­pe­cially pri­vate sec­tor busi­nesses, into sup­port­ing the coun­cil’s aim to re­duce the num­ber of empty prop­er­ties in the city.

“It’s early days, but we can al­ready see the ben­e­fits of the free­dom that Leeds Emp­ties has. I have had calls from around the coun­try ask­ing about what is hap­pen­ing in Leeds. We now need to push on and get more re­sults. Ev­ery home brought back into use is some­where for some­one to live.”

Gill and Rob are keen to take the pi­o­neer­ing ser­vice to other cities. “It’s amaz­ing what can be achieved by of­fer­ing help and just sit­ting down with some­one and talk­ing through pos­si­ble so­lu­tions,” says Rob.

IDYL­LIC SET­TING: De­spite the name, Labur­num Cot­tage is a spec­tac­u­lar six-bed­roomed coun­try house in one of North York­shire’s most sought-af­ter vil­lages with plenty of fa­cil­i­ties and good trans­port links. It has six bed­rooms, sta­bles and a pad­dock. The own­ers added an orangerie to cre­ate more room.

AC­TION CALL: Gill Cou­p­land and Rob Green­land of Leeds Emp­ties, who have led the way with cam­paign­ing to bring empty prop­er­ties into use.

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