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Empty Homes Doctor — a success story ten years in the making

When, ten years ago, we first got involved in sorting out empty homes, the truth is that we didn’t know much about empty homes. The one thing we did know is that there were a lot of them. Around 5000 long term empty properties in Leeds at the time. And, then as now, we had a serious shortage of good quality, affordable housing. We’d set up our social enterprise with a view to coming up with creative, collaborative solutions to complex problems, and sorting out empty homes struck us as an interesting issue to try to tackle. So we started doing a bit of research, including trying to work out who was currently doing what to sort out the problem. And the truth is, we didn’t get very far at first. We kept getting passed from one person to another at the Council, and it was pretty clear no-one was particularly interested in us sticking our oar in and suggesting we might be able to help. That changed when local media picked up on what we were wanting to do, and we ended up with a front page feature in the Yorkshire Post.

A Yorkshire Post feature from 2012

Things changed from that moment on. Key people at the Council began to understand that we might be on to something — and that there was a need for a service that supported people who wanted to bring their empty home back into use, but didn’t know what to do.

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With a view to creating a collaborative approach to solving the problem, we hosted a Call To Action in 2013 — a day when we brought together around 150 people in the city who had an interest in bringing more empty homes back into use. Council staff & Councillors. Estate Agents. Auctioneers. Roofers. Bathroom fitters. Funders. Social Enterprises. Housing Associations. And TV personality and empty homes campaigner, George Clarke. The day finished with George hosting a pledge-a-thon — with local businesses collaborating to bring a long term empty property, recently purchased by LATCH, back into use. George led by example — pledging a bathroom for the long-term empty home.

Local businesses pledged support to bring a home back into use

On the back of the Call To Action, we developed a prototype for an Empty Homes Doctor service. With support from a RSA Catalyst Fund grant and a grant from Leeds City Council, we piloted a service for six months. With this initial funding, we ran a series of Empty Homes Doctor clinics, which helped us to find the first people we could support, to bring their home back into use.

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It soon became clear that we were onto something. The gap we filled was around what we came to know as accidental owners of empty properties. We rarely work with “professional landlords” — people who’ve made a deliberate choice to own rental properties, and may occasionally end up with one that is vacant. Instead, we work with people who, for a range of reasons, end up with an empty home. Sometimes, it’s the family of an older person who’s moved into long term care. It can be people dealing with a complicated probate process, or perhaps people who for a range of reasons, have had to move away from Leeds. Or, and this is increasingly common, we find that a person’s poor mental health can result in them having to move out of their home — which then becomes another issue for them to deal with.

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This successful six month pilot put us in a position to approach Leeds City Council to suggest that we had a service that could be of use to them, working alongside their empty homes team. Around 18 months after we first started exploring the idea, we were successful in securing a grant from the Council to establish our Empty Homes Doctor service.

Our Empty Homes Doctor has been running since 2014

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Ten years after first coming up with the idea, we continue to deliver our service. And in that time, we’ve helped to bring back into use over 900 long-term empty homes.

We’ve helped to create more housing for people in Leeds. We’ve sorted out homes that have caused real problems for neighbours. We’ve helped local social enterprises, like LATCH, Canopy, Hunslet Club and Headingley Development Trust, purchase long-term empty homes, to refurbish them for affordable housing — including this home, renovated by LATCH:

We’ve also helped Leeds City Council access hundreds of thousands of pounds in New Homes Bonus, alongside repayments of many tens of thousands in council tax arrears and other debts.

In other words, Leeds City Council’s investment in our service has been repaid over and over again.

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Where next? First and foremost, we want to keep improving the service we offer in Leeds. But we’d also like to share our expertise more broadly — to help other towns and cities to take a more collaborative approach to bringing empty homes back into use. If you’d like to talk with us about empty homes, or perhaps about how we could work with you on another challenging social issue, please get in touch. You can find out much more about what we do, and the guiding principles behind our work, on our website.

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