Why don’t we just… fill empty houses?

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The current housing crisis is deeply concerning to all of us, from policymakers, third sector agencies and charities to individuals affected by homelessness, to young people and families trying to find somewhere affordable to live. The context seems incredibly complex and tangible solutions hard to come by, and all too often I’m left wondering what I can do. How can I get involved in trying to change the situation for everyone? 

The current Northern Powerhouse narrative suggests Manchester is at the forefront of discussions abut sustainability and housing, with devolved powers to tackle these issues head on. However, these positive accounts of what devolution may bring overlook the opportunity for a sustainable solution to the housing crisis.

Earlier this month HM Treasury announced plans to spend another
£5 billion to boost housebuilding in the UK. This is a much-needed step in the right direction, but one that brings its own implications to existing communities and green space. Policies to invest in housebuilding do not address the ongoing issues related to all the empty houses and derelict buildings I spot as I cycle through Manchester about my daily business.

I realised that mapping empty houses is one way to address the shortfalls in Northern Powerhouse narratives and housebuilding initiatives. This information can then be used to work with local councils, housing charities and other relevant organisations to try to bring these empty houses back into use as liveable homes.

Not all empty houses are problematic. Housing markets need some empty properties to function. But problems arise when a property has been left unoccupied for six months or more. That tends to indicate that it is “stuck empty”, deteriorating and requiring investment from somewhere to make it habitable again. The longer a property remains unoccupied, the greater the wastage in precious housing assets – at a time when so many are earching for a liveable home at a price they can afford. There are also correlations between empty houses and crime rates. Early intervention can help reduce the number of, and extent to which, properties remain empty, and thus address the subsequent social, environmental, political and economic issues that arise.

What is to be done? How can you help? I’ve set up the Empty Houses Project to explore how crowdsourcing data on empty houses could reveal more about the usage of homes in the UK. The data it will produce is seen as a positive step towards bringing housing back into use. It is also hoped that the co-production of data will offer examples of best practice for future attempts to use everyday observations to contribute to solutions for tackling policy problems. So if you see any empty houses in your local area, you can record your observations and submit them to the project website to build a picture of trends in home usage, as a more sustainable approach to tacking the current housing situation.

The Empty Houses project is a form of citizen social science, and follows a similar model to more well-known citizen science projects (Scistarter; Zooniverse). People observe everyday life all the time, and this project seeks to discover how everyday observations could contribute to solutions for tackling policy problems. Although the official government data is useful in highlighting some of the issues, its top-down methods do not account for the value of knowledge on the ground and, in this case – it seems – fail to accurately represent patterns of houses that are underutilised, or appear to be empty.

Get involved by reporting any empty houses you might see using this form – http://bit.ly/2dQBXPY – or via emptyhouses@manchester.ac.uk.

Alexandra Albert is a doctoral researcher looking at developing approaches for citizen social science and public anthropology. For more information see emptyhousesproject.wordpress.com and @EmptyHousesProj, or email emptyhouses@manchester.ac.uk

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