Activism

Meet the builders turning London's empty houses into affordable homes

From living on a mattress on an office floor, these builders helped a single mum move into a refurbished flat

One of Phases' tutors teaches a trainee in their workshop. Image: Phases

Empty houses are a hot-button issue. Some of London’s wealthiest streets are dotted with second homes, left to linger as they appreciate in value.

But there’s a second kind of problem – empty homes left to the elements. And that’s where Phases comes in useful.

Glenn Heaton runs Phases, a social enterprise turning abandoned properties into affordable homes.

Take the case of a single mother, who had been living with her four-year-old child in a “lightly repurposed” tax office in Lewisham for four years.

“It was just like living in an office, but they’d put a toilet in there,” Heaton recalls. “There was a mattress on the floor.”

Phases was able to step in, and put her in a property they’d refurbished in Brockley – a two-bedroom flat.

For Heaton, that’s a real perk of the job: “Being able to transport people from pretty desperate, basic accommodation in London to somewhere that’s half decent.”

Phases currently owns and rents 15 properties in the capital, just like the flat in Brockley.

The company will often get tip-offs from councils about houses and flats lying vacant, and negotiate with the landlord to take on a five- or 10-year lease. Heaton and his team will then renovate the houses and put tenants in, charging rents as close to Local Housing Allowance rates as possible.

A trainee in Phases’ workshop selects his tools. Image: Phases

Any surplus cash generated from this method is reinvested back into the business.

The renovations also provide the perfect opportunity for the other side of Phases – construction training.

While the rents from renovated properties make up the bulk of Phases’ turnover, it has also benefited from investment from Big Issue Invest, the investment arm of the Big Issue.

Now firmly looking forward from the pandemic, Heaton has turned his gaze to a new project: building new social housing.

It’s a rarity these days, but Heaton sees it as the perfect opportunity to put his skills to the test.

“It’s a harder, tougher thing to do in London, and we’ve just stuck at it and hung in there in a small way. We’re still here, trying to do our thing,” he says.

“It is proper social housing. Hopefully we can identify something that will be a large-ish project for us.”

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