EMPTY homes in Southend must be brought back into use to cope with the housing crisis, councillors have demanded – after a 15 per cent surge in vacant properties in the last year.
Southend Council’s cabinet committee, which met yesterday to discuss the Empty Homes Strategy, heard the borough had 724 vacant properties in 2020.
Yet in 2019 there were fewer at 630, and in 2015, there were 593 empty homes.
The council currently works with owners of empty properties to help finance renovations, and the money gets paid back as the property is rented out or sold.
However, COVID-19 has caused homes to sit empty for longer periods, and there have been delays with selling.
An empty home is a property that has been vacant for a period of six months or more, and not owned by the council.
It is labelled as empty if, for example, an elderly couple go into care, the owner of a property dies or if rented property tenants leave.
Labour leader of the council, Ian Gilbert, told the meeting: “It is a very bad thing if we have homes left empty for a considerable amount of time – especially when we have people in the borough who are in real need of accommodation.”
Deputy leader Cllr Ron Woodley, said they are working hard to get families into homes.
He said: “We are purchasing homes as and when they come available, refurbishing them, putting people in them and letting them.
“We work with the home owner, refurbish it to a high standard, then as it is sold we get our money back.
“If we spend £100,000 refurbishing, then once it is bought back into use we get our money back based on the interest rate which will be applicable.”
The report was intended to cover residential properties, but councillors say they are aware of the need to bring commercial property back into use.
Prior to the meeting, Cllr Meg Davidson of Prittlewell Ward said: “The pandemic may cause these houses to be empty for quite a long time and it is difficult to sell during this time. There will always be some properties that will be empty – after six months of being empty they become liable for council tax surcharge.”
Empty homes often have detrimental impact such as antisocial behaviour, over-grown or unkempt gardens, structural issues and pest control issues.
Cllr Woodley added: “The more empty homes we can get back into use the better.”
Cllr Anne Jones said they may become empty due to probate and says that due to the pandemic causing excess deaths this would likely affect certain parts of the country.
She added: “People who don’t have wills and have sudden deaths in circumstances like this – I think we have work to do in the community in making sure that people can have plans for use of their homes in the future.”
Speaking prior to the meeting, Mike Gray, managing director of Dedman Gray property consultants, says the number of empty properties in Southend is ‘surprising.’
He said: “I’m surprised that the number of vacant properties hasn’t reduced under its own steam over the last 12 months, bearing in mind the strong demand for rental properties so landlords have opportunity to refurbish properties so tenants would be found.
“COVID-19 has made it more difficult for properties to change hands of ownership it has also influenced refurbishment programmes that are being carried out and we aware of some of these projects taking longer than anticipated.”