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.
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.