Guardian Housing Network Blog – A problem shared: tackling empty homes

There is a Quechuan word I learnt years ago during my time volunteering on a community building project in Peru, the concept of which has stayed with me since. “Aynikuy” means, roughly speaking, “to contribute labour to a task to which all parties are mutually committed”. It’s the way a lot of jobs were accomplished in the Inca Empire, including all those superb terraces and fortresses around Cuzco, and Quechua communities still practice it today when there is work to be done.

Last year, when Habitat for Humanity met with communities and local government under-secretary Andrew Stunell, we emphasised the important role community groups and social enterprises play in bringing empty homes back into use as affordable housing. We are now in a position to access over £25m of funding from a £100m government pot for just such a purpose.

An interesting by-product of the government’s attempts to address the problem of empty homes is the infiltration of new set of values and priorities into the social housing arena; housing providers and councils are demonstrating a desire to do things differently, and to achieve a wider set of social benefits for their community.

We see a lot of potential for using empty homes schemes as a renovation activity that can directly involve and benefit the local community. Whether providing support for unemployed people looking for a step back into work; NEETs (youngsters not in education, employment or training) in need of support, focus, direction and training; or local and corporate volunteers wanting to make a difference. The projects themselves provide an unusual breadth of opportunity for addressing many social issues in a single hit.

However, this is a complex and costly business. On paper the benefits look good, and the figures make the issue appear straightforward: 1m empty homes, two million families in need of a home.

But dig a bit deeper and we uncover a historic problem that has multiple roots that prove tough to pull out. Every empty property has its own story of neglect or tragedy, and the attempted intervention of the state over recent years into the “every man’s home is his castle” mentality of British homeowners has not been altogether welcome.

A disproportionate amount of time and resource goes into early investigations and discussions with owners, which can often be fraught with setbacks due to mental health difficulties or unrealistic perspectives on their own circumstances or prospects. This makes for a very unpredictable process, which in turn calls for a very flexible approach.

Turning these empty houses back into homes takes a lot of time, effort, determination and patience. Often there is no easy answer. For many, it’s sadly not possible.

But what is becoming increasingly obvious is that far more can be achieved if many different organisations with complementary skill sets are able to work together.

Despite the stripped-back funding for local authority empty homes schemes, council officers do have a wealth of experience and expertise on which others can draw. There is certainly still an important role to be played in facilitating the work of others.

Combine this with the organisations that are springing up offering training provision, and connect this with outfits like ours which provide a tailored construction service managing the project process, and something unusual could emerge: a form of “aynikuy” that tackles the problem of empty homes but also fosters a deeper shift in thinking about working together for the common good – to solve a problem that nobody can easily solve alone.

David Clare is business development manager at Habitat for Humanity Southwark

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