Thousands of properties are lying vacant across the EastLondonLines boroughs despite a chronic shortage of housing, with the number of long-term empty homes having more than doubled in Hackney and Lewisham over the past year, according to latest figures.
Charities and housing campaigners have called for the vast reserve of empty homes in south and east London to be brought back into use in order to meeting the growing housing crisis in the capital.
Figures compiled by the charity, Empty Homes, reveal that in Hackney, Lewisham and Croydon, the quantity of empty habitable properties is on the increase – despite demand for rented housing far outstripping supply in the area. The numbers, released last month and for the year 2010, run into the thousands and indicate 3,680 empty homes in Croydon; 3,064 in Hackney; and 2,540 in Lewisham, respectively.
Only Tower Hamlets witnessed a drop – with the number down by almost half on the 2009 total to 2,940.
Standing out among the figures is the sharp rise in the number of privately-owned homes that have lain empty for more than six months. An increase on a scale of two and a half was registered in Lewisham, where a total of 942 houses have been empty long-term.
In Hackney a staggering 2,118 dwellings have been unoccupied for more than half a year – a rise of more than twofold on the previous count. Meanwhile in Tower Hamlets the figure rose by nearly a fifth to stand at 1,623.
Hundreds of socially-rented homes were not in use either at the time of the count. Hackney came in the top five per cent of local authorities with unoccupied council houses – 578 – and Tower Hamlets was ranked seventh-worst offender in the country for empty housing association homes, with a total of 878.
The statistics, which mirror a national trend brought to light this week by the Channel 4 programme, The Great British Property Scandal, come at a time of rocketing rents and increased homelessness across the capital.
With social housing waiting lists running into the thousands in each of the EastLondonLines boroughs – and Hackney and Tower Hamlets rated by housing charity Shelter among the top ten most unaffordable places to live in the country – the figures have fanned the flames of the housing debate.
Duncan Shroubsole, Director of Policy at homelessness charity Crisis told EastLondonLines that not enough is being done to tackle the problem of empty homes. He said: “This has reached a crisis point with rents soaring and homelessness increasing. We need real concerted action by both national and local government. The time for talking and watching properties standing idle and empty is over.”
Adding to the grim picture were the results of a quarterly survey by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors released this week, which showed demand for private rented housing outstripping supply – and driving up rental yields for landlords. In light of this Shroubsole said the lack of supply of rented homes was exerting upwards pressure on rents.
Rachel Orr, London Campaign Manager at housing charity Shelter, said that meaningful action on vacant houses is often outside the means of councils.
“Local authorities do have legal powers to bring empty properties back into use, but it is often a question of whether they have the resources to find the owner and take the steps needed,” she said.
But the problem of empty homes should not detract from the urgent need for building new affordable and socially-rented housing, she added.
Chris Norr, Policy Manager at the National Association of Landlords said that while the demand for rented housing had never been greater, the recorded increases in empty properties were down to a “number of reasons”.
He said: “The most common reason we encounter [for property owners leaving property empty for a period of time] is actually probate, however from a professional landlord’s perspective a common cause of properties remaining empty is significant renovation work by property owners.
“It is also possible that the recorded numbers are increasing due to the welcome greater focus by local authorities in identifying empty homes.”
The large amount of empty properties combined with precarious tenancies means that increasing numbers of people in areas such as Hackney are taking matters into their own hands, said Joseph Blake, part of the Squatters Action for Secure Housing campaign.
He told EastLondonLines: “The vast number of properties lying empty in east London highlights the property scandal we currently face. It is an outrage that the Government is spending millions of taxpayers’ money [on the criminalisation of squatting] to protect property speculators and stop homeless people bringing these properties back into use.
“With homelessness soaring, and an increase in the amount of empty buildings – squatting makes a lot of sense.”