HOUSING WEEK: Hackney’s empty homes

Empty Hackney homes. Photo: Phil Evans

Hackney has a housing shortage, some say it is a crisis.

The borough has around 15,500 people on the council housing waiting list and 2,000 people registered as homeless. There are more than 17,000 people living in “unsuitable” housing. Unsuitable housing includes overcrowded homes; in Hackney almost 10 per cent of households are overcrowded, compared to 2.5 per cent nationally.

However, information obtained by EastLondonLines using the Freedom of Information Act shows that there are more than 2,000 houses in the borough which have been unoccupied for 6 months or longer.

We’ve mapped the 1168 of these homes which are owned by either the council, housing associations or by property developers (excluding properties owned by individuals) so that readers can see the extent of this problem in our communities.


Map thanks to Pete Rogers

In addition to empty residential properties there are also 2,000 empty commercial properties across Hackney, including for example empty shops, offices and warehouses.

Hackney is not alone. All four ELL boroughs have significant numbers of empty properties. Tower Hamlets has 366 privately owned and 292 Council owned properties which have been unoccupied for 12 months or longer. In Croydon 1,295 properties have been empty for 6 months or longer and in Lewisham the figure is 1,549 [Note: All figures were correct at the time the information was released through the Freedom of Information Act between January and February 2010].

This is not just a local problem. The Empty Homes Agency, an independent campaigning charity, estimates there will be 1 million empty homes in the UK this year. There are 1.8 million families on social housing (i.e. council and housing association homes) waiting lists whilst only 85,000 new social housing properties were built last year.

A recent investigation by The Guardian estimated that more than 450,000 homes in the UK have been empty for more than 6 months:

Our findings suggest the number of “long term vacant” properties is 25% higher than previously thought. David Ireland, chief executive of independent charity the Empty Homes Agency said the empty stock would go some way towards tackling the housing crisis – 1.8 million households are waiting for a council house – as opposed to the government’s focus on building new homes to tackle the problem. “Refurbishing empty homes cannot deal with the entire housing crisis but it can make an important contribution,” he said.


Meanwhile the recession and associated housing market crisis meant that last year the number of homeless people rose by 15% in London, including 2,336 people registered homeless with Hackney council. In 2009 more than 4,000 people were sleeping rough on the streets of London. Another consequence of the crisis was the 15% increase in repossessions last year with more than 54,000 people losing their homes because they couldn’t afford to pay their mortgage.

Whilst the housing and the wider economic crisis have increased demand for housing and so highlighted the waste of empty properties these same crises have contributed to the problem of unoccupied properties as people lose their homes, businesses go bust and newly built private homes stand unsold and unoccupied in developments across the country.

Empty properties are not just a waste of potential homes for those that need them they also negatively impact on the surrounding community. Empty buildings can attract vandalism and become dangerous for children or other people who make use of them. They can also become eyesores and increase fear of crime for neighbours. Nobody wants to live next door to a run down, empty building.

It is no surprise that with so many people in need of housing and so many properties standing empty some people make use of these houses by squatting them. Hackney Council says that 24 of their properties have been occupied by squatters in the past 4 years, although EastLondonLines’ investigation has found others not listed in the council’s data. Tower Hamlets Borough Council told us that they are aware of 501 cases of “unauthorised occupations” of their properties in the past 5 years, although this figure includes unauthorised sub-lettings.


The Advisory Service for Squatters (ASS), based in east London is a group which provides information to homeless on how to squat empty properties. One of their volunteers, who did not want to be named, said that squatting is becoming more common as a DIY solution to the problems of lack of affordable homes, high private sector rents and the under-provision of social housing by local authorities. He said that most of the 20 cases a-day they deal with are Eastern European migrant workers, many of whom have been badly hit by the recession and record unemployment. ASS say that squatting has been made easier by the huge number of empty houses in London.

Eviction from empty Hackney Council property. Photo: Phil Evans

Natalie Walker, a charity worker, was one of a group of people who in December 2009 opened a “community housing project” empty flats in a block of flats in Hackney. The block on the Kings Crescent Estate, has been almost entirely empty for about 5 years with only a handful of remaining tenants left scattered amongst the dilapidated abandoned flats. The block is owned by Hackney Council and controlled by its Arms Length Management Organisation (ALMO), Hackney Homes but is awaiting redevelopment and the remaining tenants are awaiting rehousing.

Natalie described how the group worked to build a community of people in housing need to take over some of the empty flats:

“There were some Eastern Europeans who’d become unemployed because of the recession, most of whom had been working in Britain a long time, some as long as ten years, mostly in unskilled work, as labourers for example. Most of the people there had never experienced unemployment or homelessness before. One person was a student who couldn’t claim benefits because he didn’t have an address and so can’t afford rent and was stuck jumping through hoops trying to make a claim. And he’s trying to study but he’s cold and he’s tired and he’s not doing any of his work and it’s devastating. And there was a family with the eleven-year-old and a week-old baby. The woman was eight-and-a-half months pregnant when they moved into the squat. The father had been working for a long time in England and then, again, recession-related unemployment. They’d been living in private rented accommodation, a sub-let arrangement that poor people often find themselves in, and were unlawfully evicted when they had difficulty paying the rent. And everyone wanted to work to create a community together. This was publicly owned housing sitting empty and there are homeless people who can’t get housing, so why not make use of this space.”

Read more about Natalie and the Kings Crescent squatters here.

Hear Zana’s story of eviction, squatting and homelessness with a newborn baby in Hackney:

The Kings Crescent squatters were evicted after just 3 weeks in the building leaving more than 20 people, including a child and a newborn baby, homeless again. The eviction process involved the use of courts, police and private security with dogs. When EastLondonLines visited the building 2 weeks after the eviction we saw council contractors apparently ripping out the fixtures of the flats including radiators and toilet bowls. Natalie said she believes this was to make it impossible for anyone to move back in.

Matt Sellwood is the Green party parliamentary candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and a council candidate for Clissold ward; he is also the Green party’s national spokesperson on housing. He supported the King’s Crescent squatters and was critical of Hackney Council’s actions:

“To spend so much time and effort evicting a group of homeless and vulnerably housed people, just before Christmas, including a family with a newborn child – from flats which are not being used and which have laid empty for a significant period of time – seems to consider the need of the Council not to ‘lose face’ as a higher imperative than the human right of people to housing. I thought that the Council behaved disgracefully, personally – although I wasn’t surprised at their reaction.”

Mr Sellwood said that whilst there are some squatters who are anti-social and move into properties which are being used, and that is not right, squatters like the Kings Crescent group should be given permission and short-term licences and agreements to remain until the council can make use of the properties for proper social housing. He said that as well as a programme of council house building and extra funding to bring existing properties up to the government “decent homes standard”, he supports making use of empty properties:“We have to start making use of empty properties. It’s a disgrace that at the moment landlords get a council tax discount if their properties are empty.”

Andrew Boff, a member of the Greater London Assembly and Conservative party candidate for Mayor of Hackney says that the number of empty properties in the borough is a problem. He believe the solution is to give greater control over housing allocation to local communities:

“We need more locally based solutions because local communities know where the empty properties are and the solutions can come from the bottom up rather than the top down. And that’s the problem in Hackney, everything’s top-down, everything’s about massaging statistics and making things easy for the bureaucrats. We should be making things easy for the people on the waiting lists, the people on the estates to manage those estates more because I don’t think Hackney Council or Hackney homes are doing it very well at the moment.”

Ghost Estates

Many of the empty council homes in Hackney, and elsewhere, are on ghost estates where regeneration and redevelopment programmes have stalled or taken longer than expected because of financial problems. The squatters at Kings Crescent say that the block they moved into has been empty for so long because of financial problems with a private developer. Many estates are being transferred from local authority control to Arms Length Management Organisations (ALMOs) or housing associations. The Defend Council Housing group campaigns to keep social housing in the hands of local authorities. They say council owned and controlled housing is cheaper for tenants and councils and maintains democratic control of housing.

Hackney Council, as all local authorities do, has responsibility for trying to bring both private and public sector housing back into use. The council provides advice and assistance to owners of empty properties on bringing them back into use and ultimately has the power to enforce action. It says:

“Across Hackney there are around 2,830 empty homes (2008 figures), many of which could provide suitable homes. Empty buildings often become a target for crime, vandalism, rodents, fly tipping and squatters, as well as de-valuing the neighbouring properties. Informal action includes, talking to the owners and informing them of empty property grants and giving advice and information on what can be done. If formal action is needed, then there is a wide range of enforcement action available, such as Compulsory Purchase Orders.”

EastLondonLines tried on several occasions to put questions about this issue to Hackney Council’s cabinet members responsible for housing but we have yet to receive a response.


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