Blog: The key to unlocking our empty homes

By Shaheena Din, national project manager for the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership

Data collated in December 2017 shows we have approximately 37,135 long-term, private sector empty homes in Scotland. These are figures obtained from all 32 Scottish local authorities and are based on council tax records. They report dwellings which have been vacant for 6 months or more and of those, just over half have been empty for 12 months or more.  The Scottish Empty Homes Partnership recognises these empty homes as a wasted resource and believes that nationally more must be done to make best use of our existing assets.

So why do properties lie empty and how do we collaborate to take action? Our research shows that the reasons vary but can range from complex inheritance issues, absent and or reluctant landlords, low property values and cost of repair. This is not a comprehensive list and empty homes officers can share stories telling why a property is left unloved and unused.  However, we know what works. The network of empty homes officers supported by the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership has helped to bring more than 2,800 properties back into use, in the last 6 years.

Empty homes officers usually do not have to help owners access special funding for bringing an empty property back into use. Perhaps surprisingly this is the answer in a minority of projects.  Most properties reported back into use across Scotland are done so via advice, information and problem solving.  Often empty home owners have complex issues and a dedicated specialist can work to present options that will unlock the property.

We are currently amidst a housing crisis in Scotland and bringing empty homes back into use is certainly an important cost effective, contribution to housing supply. However, the idea that is sometimes floated of housing homeless people in current empty homes is too simplistic for what is a much more complex issue.  We must be realistic, firstly to ensure that affordable housing is in areas where it is needed, and secondly to recognise that inadequate standards or “stuck” empty properties that may not meet tolerable standards do not protect or recognise the right to a safe, decent affordable home for everyone.

We believe that a dedicated empty homes officer is required in every council to support these owners.  This will allow the local authority to map out empty homes, tie them into regeneration plans, build them into local housing plans and focus on tailored solutions. Many authorities are ahead of the curve with empty homes work and by sharing their innovative solutions and best practice allows other councils to develop and maintain their own services.  In fact, last year 97% of properties that were reported brought back into use nationally were in areas with a dedicated resource. If every local authority employed a dedicated empty homes officer, much larger numbers of empty homes than we currently see could be brought back into use each year, providing a boon to housing supply which has benefits for all of us.

This article was originally published on the Shelter Scotland website.