(photo: Alvin Decena)
20.02.2020, 10:55

Is Repurposing Empty Buildings the Panacea for Homelessness?

Real Estate, Americas, Residential, United Kingdom

Cathy Spears weights up the arguments which are advocated for repurposing empty properties to solve the homelessness problem.


Homelessness is a problem in many countries, even wealthy ones like the US and UK. Vast amounts of money and initiatives to increase both the proficiency and the impact of social housing projects and housebuilding are not out of the ordinary. These initiatives in themselves aren’t enough, however, and we need to start looking at innovative ways and new ideas to tackle the broad problem of not only homelessness but of housing in general.


One of the ways that this makes the news and social commentary from time to time is the use of empty properties. There are plenty of good cases for why this could work, but some negatives too. Let’s spend some time examining both sides of the argument.

House Emptiness Differs by Region

There is a UK non-profit called “Action on Empty Homes” which operates with the sole purpose of campaigning for more socially responsible use of empty homes. As part of this work, they are actively studying and providing data on empty houses. According to this data, there are quite stark differences between each region.


According to their research, you might be surprised to learn that there are more empty houses overall in northern England than in the southern areas of the country. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are more empty houses in seaside towns.

The Second Home Question

Naturally, not all empty homes are unused. Some wealthier families might own more than one property in different parts of the country, usually either for investment – to hold onto for a while and sell – or as a second home for holidays. Many questions come up about second homes and what should and shouldn’t be allowed. Should holiday houses that are only used for a few weeks a year be allowed? Should purchasing property purely with the intention of keeping it empty to sell in a few years when it’s worth more be allowed or controlled? There are many very valid questions with not many good answers in this sphere of the debate.


In the US, there have been numerous solutions to tackle the problem of homelessness, but with more than 500,000 people homeless most days, there are no simple solutions. The government has repeatedly set goals, but they are missed at every turn.

Checking Your Neighbourhood

In the UK, you can visit the Land Registry to find out who owns empty homes in your neighbourhood. In the US, it’s even easier. There, estate records and similar information are quite readily available. Full address information can be obtained online without much effort through sites like, which pull data from publicly accessible databases so the general public can search for it via name, address, etc. So, if you’re interested in just how prevalent empty housing is in your neighbourhood or direct surroundings, there’s a solution for you online.

What Is Already Being Done

There are a few initiatives being done already in the space of empty houses. The not-for-profit Action on Empty Homes has a number of initiatives they’re running, but they are mostly in the campaigning space right now.


They have a project they call “Buy to Leave” which finds itself largely centered around London, where the purchase of properties for investment is particularly prominent. They have a lot of information for you here on what you can do to get involved with his and their other projects.


In the US, a housing-first approach has been found to be more effective than setting up homeless shelters. This gives homeless people a home before they have a job or access to rehab. In Utah, this strategy has led to a functional homeless rate of almost zero.

Some Success Stories

There are real debates happening in many spheres of this discussion, examining the cost of building new housing against the repurposing of empty houses. Some estimates put the number of empty houses at more than 200 000.


One success story is Plymouth in Kent, where over the last few years the local county council has transformed and revitalized more than 5,000 empty homes in the town. They offer interest-free loans and many other great ways of assisting in the revitalization of these empty houses.


Another great initiative has happened in Stoke-on-Trent, where the local council has sold a number of houses for only £1, with the only proviso being that they are committed to fixing it up and staying there for at least 10 years.


Using empty housing is not the only initiative currently being used to tackle homelessness, but it is showing big growth in interest from the social narrative. If this is something that you’re passionate about, you might do well looking into initiatives like the Community Land Trusts, which are also gaining traction.


A roof over your head, running water and reliable electricity are often considered the benchmarks for an absolute minimum human living condition. While much is being done to deliver this to every person living in the UK and the US, it’s clear that more can be done. Examining the prevalence of empty houses in each area, particularly those areas that are most affected by it, might just be that solution we’ve been seeking.




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