Empty homes battle goes global to take on housing crisis

Groups from the UK, USA and Australia join forces to bring back more vacant properties into use and to prevent more being left empty by a surge in evictions

While building more social homes is vital to bringing Britain’s housing crisis to an end, taking empty homes back into use will also play a role.

UK campaigners Action on Empty Homes know this – as do The Big Issue, we launched our Fill ‘em Up campaign several years ago – and that is why they have joined forces with international partners to launch the Global Empty Homes Network (GEHN).

Prosper Australia and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation from the United States are also involved with GEHN, bringing local expertise that the group hope will solve the mismatch between empty homes and housing need.

First on the agenda for GEHN is dealing with efforts to prevent a “surge of evictions and repossessions” off the back of the Covid-19 pandemic. This is another goal shared by The Big Issue as our Ride Out Recession Alliance urges the government to extend the evictions ban in England.

“Many countries face the prospect of both an increase in homelessness and an increase in empty homes as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. At this critical time, it is imperative governments look to the long term and prevent both a surge of evictions and repossessions,” said Will McMahon, director of Action on Empty Homes. “The housing market must be protected from speculative purchases of distressed assets from global players.”

GEHN will gather not only NGO leaders but also housing policy experts, local governments and philanthropists, to study the magnitude of the empty-homes problem and understand how vacancies are impacting different markets.

They hope that this research will enable them to share best practices for solving the problem. The group plans to share these strategies with the United Nations for consideration.

As that work kicks off, the group are already warning of a “dangerous tipping point” with the spectre of thousands of families losing their homes and a growing trend of “large international investors with very deep pockets buying up entire neighbourhoods” hanging over struggling economies.

“The more empty homes there are for sale, the more can be snapped up in bulk by these investors awash in equity, diminishing the opportunity for genuinely affordable homes,” said McMahon.

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GEHN have called on countries to adopt 10 principles to meet urgent housing needs, including providing shelter for people during Covid-19, protecting empty homes from global speculative funds and measuring vacancies properly.

The group are also urging that renters and small businesses must be protected from eviction while homeowners must also be offered a mortgage suspension and governments must invest in retrofitting empty homes as part of their Covid-19 recovery efforts.

Many countries face the prospect of both an increase in homelessness and an increase in empty homes as a result of the Covid-19 crisis

“The economic fallout of Covid-19 has pushed the United States to the edge of a housing cliff,” added Denise Scott, executive vice president at LISC. “Unless we act now, the pandemic will cause massive displacement of renters and homeowners and create swathes of vacant homes across America – at levels that eclipse even the 2008 foreclosure crisis.”

And Karl Fitzgerald, director of research at Proper Australia, said: “Most nations do not produce an independent statistical measure of vacancy that includes both vacant properties for rent and those left as vacant investment vehicles. This has allowed the development lobby a free rein to claim land supply is the dominant driver of affordability pressures, rather than the speculative behaviour of property investors. With vacancies expected to sharply rise during the pandemic, governments must move to deter such behaviour by taxing empty land and housing.”