Housing

Can Britain's empty homes shelter refugees from Afghanistan?

As the UK looks for homes for refugees from Afghanistan, developing empty homes would be a 'win, win, win' to provide the homes Britain needs

The UK government this week committed to accepting 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan (although only 5,000 this year) as thousands flee the humanitarian crisis after the Taliban seized control of the country. Sparks fly whenever the issue of refugees and asylum seekers arises in the UK and much of the debate has focused on one question: where will they live?

Some Brits have stood up to offer spare homes and accommodation – Refugees At Home reported on Friday that 250 volunteers had stepped forwarded to host incoming refugees. But now a social enterprise that specialises in bringing empty homes back into use to house refugees has made an appeal to landlords and second-home owners to act as Afghan refugees head to the UK.

ACH, a social enterprise specialising in renovating homes to house refugees as well as providing support and integration services, has urged people with second homes and private landlords to step forward and work with them to bring empty homes back into use.

“It’s a win, win, win,” ACH founder Fuad Mahamed told The Big Issue. “This is the time to appeal to landlords with available properties and to appeal to people with second homes to work with social landlords, local governments, people like us to bring their property back to use.

“It will make a difference and it makes commercial sense and business sense. We’re not asking you to give it to us on a charitable basis, it will never be for free. We are here to help to bring this property, not only into the market, but also to earn some money contributing to society.”

There were more than 260,000 long-term empty homes in England at the end of 2020 as the UK struggles to overcome a housing crisis that has lasted for decades.

Meanwhile, also at the end of the 2020, there were more than 132,000 refugees living in the UK, according to the UN Refugee Agency, plus more than 77,000 people waiting for decisions to be made on their applications for asylum.

My own view is that although empty homes for refugees may seem a ‘quick fix’, the situation is not without its complexitiesAction for Empty Homes

ACH works in four different areas, including Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry as well as bringing 20 vacant properties back into use in Bristol over the last five years.

A former refugee himself who set up the social enterprise in 2008 after arriving in the UK from Somalia, Mahamed told The Big Issue that landlords or second-home owners can do more than just plug the gap in housing supply through stepping forward.

Working with organisations like ACH will help to smooth the transition to an unfamiliar country for refugees too as the social enterprise involves the people it supports in the renovation of homes. ACH builds on construction skills many refugees bring with them from their home countries to provide valuable work experience and a chance to embed in the community which might not be replicated by a straight housing offer.

“I still believe there are more properties out there that we could bring into use,” added Mahamed. “But what is equally important is that we use the workforce from these communities and bring in the workforce who have done a lot of construction in their home countries.

“This gives them the opportunity to be part of their future home. But also to get that work experience, which is very important as a first step.”

However, while empty homes offer an opportunity to house refugees, there are still plenty of hurdles to overcome, according to Action on Empty Homes’ Brighid Carey.

Refugees who apply for asylum in the UK may live under the no recourse to public fund condition while waiting for an asylum decision, meaning they cannot claim support from the state or work. This hampers the ability to pay rent in the private sector without the support of charities and social enterprises such as ACH.

Many long-term empty homes which are left derelict or require sizeable investment to become habitable may require time for renovation work to be done, making some unsuitable for an immediate influx of demand.

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Investment may also be required to help refugees integrate into communities and put support systems in place to allow them to settle in their new surroundings.

“My own view is that although empty homes for refugees may seem a ‘quick fix’, the situation is not without its complexities,” said Carey.

Government should invest realistic levels of resources to enable councils and other organisations to bring forward empty and underutilised homes, to provide decent, stable and settled accommodation with support.

“It makes absolute sense to bring forward additional affordable housing supply from existing empty and underutilised homes to meet the housing and support needs of refugees.”

The Big Issue’s Refugee Special is out on Monday August 23. Get your copy from vendors around the UK. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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