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Research and insights

Empty homes: the complete solution or just part of the package?

Published date: 24 April 2024

A terrace with a boarded up derelict house next to a house where people are living

Sam Bloomer

Policy Officer

Empty homes: there are a lot of them, right? In the middle of a housing emergency, it’s indefensible that so many homes remain unoccupied, right? If we brought these all back into use, we’d solve the housing emergency, right?

These are some frequently asked questions that we often hear about empty homes. My answer to the first and second questions: yes. But to the third question: no. If we don’t think about the tenure of the homes we deliver (for instance, whether it is private or social housing), we’ll never end the housing emergency. We need a new generation of social rent homes that are genuinely affordable to all, with rents tied to local incomes.  

What about if we brought all empty homes back into use as social rent homes?  

Better! Long-term empty homes can be converted into social rent homes. We’ve devised a 10-City Plan to demonstrate what can be achieved if government properly funds this. But there are only 261,000 ‘long-term empty homes’ within England (the key type of empty home category that could feasibly be brought back into use as social homes). And it is likely that only a portion of these could realistically be acquired by councils to convert them into social rent homes.

Even in the impossible scenario that all these empty homes were brought back into use as social rent homes, this would still only provide housing for 20% of the 1.3 million households on the social housing waiting list. And the true number of households in housing need is actually much higher. So, not quite the magical solution to the housing emergency we might have hoped for. 

So, what needs to happen to end the housing emergency, and is it even possible?  

Ending the housing emergency is entirely possible. The government must ramp up the supply of new social rent homes to deliver 90,000 social homes per year for 10 years. We’ve done it before, and we can do it again. Initial investment in the 90,000 even pays for itself within three years. But reaching these numbers will require a large, national increase in social housing construction – we must build far more social rent homes than we currently do.  

This is the only way to end the housing emergency: providing councils and housing associations with the funding and resources they need to deliver social rent homes; ensuring developers deliver a high percentage of social rent homes within their private developments; planning reforms to unlock land for social rent delivery; the creation of new towns … the list goes on!  

The final question that we get asked a lot at Shelter is:

If empty homes aren’t the silver bullet to end the housing emergency, can they at least help? 

The answer is yes, absolutely. Our analysis indicates that, given the right funding and resources by central government, local councils could swiftly acquire and convert empty homes across 10 target cities to deliver 10,500 new social rent homes in these areas alone. The relatively fast speed at which this can happen – within the first three years of a new parliament – makes this an important short-term source of new social rent homes while social rent construction is ramped up to sufficient levels.

Apologies if you already knew the answer to these questions, but these sorts of queries are a common narrative we hear in the news – I’ve certainly asked them myself before! Now that we’ve got these issues answered, we can move on to the detail of the 10-City Plan (joy oh joy!).

How empty home acquisition and conversion works

The large majority of these acquisitions will occur on the open market. Increases in council tax premiums for long-term empty homes enabled by the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act 2023, which should be further increased, will encourage voluntary sales. As would the exemption of sellers of long-term empty homes from a prescribed proportion of Capital Gains Tax if they sold to a local council, housing association, or community organisation. Councils are also trusted and efficient buyers without a mortgage chain who could largely cover legal and administrative costs.

In cases where an empty homeowner refuses to sell, Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPO) can be used by councils to acquire long-term empty properties where acquisition can be demonstrated to be in the public interest, for instance when the empty property is causing harm to the local amenity. CPO is in need of reform to increase its efficiency and efficacy.  

Once an empty home is acquired, it can then be refurbished and allocated as a social rent home. Delivered to an energy-efficient, high-quality standard. Ready to be lived in and enjoyed.

Money, money, money

The other good news is that we have found that, using data provided to us by University College of London, the acquisition and conversion of long-term empty homes can often be extremely cost effective. Our analysis suggests that, in many areas, central grant funding requirements can be far lower for social rent delivery through long-term empty home acquisition and conversion. In Greater Manchester and Plymouth, for example, our findings indicate grant levels of around £101,000-£103,000 per social rent unit are needed, in comparison to the average £156,000-£181,000 that recent regional analysis has projected for these areas. 

One final and very important thing to remember when thinking about all of this is that not every long-term empty home is suitable for social rent conversion. The locations of the properties that are converted must have sufficient amenities, infrastructure and economic opportunity, hence the broad-brush urban focus of our 10 city areas.

We need permanent, long-term solutions. And you can help make that happen. 

I hope that in using this blog to address common questions on empty homes a strong message has rung out: we need to build far more social rent homes – 90,000 a year – and we need them now. Acquiring and converting long-term empty homes can be a quick and cost-effective boost to this end goal, but it doesn’t get us off the hook for building more.    

For all those experiencing the insecurity of the private rented sector, the record number of households living in damaging temporary accommodation, and the 1.3 million households on the social housing waitlist: please sign our open letter and vote for home – and social housing – at the next election. The current and future governments must act.  

Read our full report: Home Again: A 10-City Plan to rapidly convert empty homes into social rent homes.