UK’s empty homes crisis blighting country as thousands sleep rough

‘Forced into homelessness’: Calls to ban no-fault evictions

Housing demand outpacing supply means house prices go up. House prices outpacing wages means affordability goes down. Affordability going down means homelessness pressures intensify. All the while, ever more homes are left vacant, their doors closed to those sleeping rough on many of the same streets. breaks down the numbers along this chain of crisis and asks the experts what can be done to fix it.

Britain is a desirable place to live. Between the 2011 and the 2021 censuses, the population of England and Wales swelled by 3.5 million. In 2022 alone, net migration surpassed 500,000.

During the same decade, just over 1.9 million dwellings were added to the combined nations’ housing stock. The 2019 Conservative Party manifesto included a pledge to build “300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s”. The rate is yet to exceed the peak of 243,000 in 2019, having fallen to 233,000 for the year ending in March 2022.

As with all marketable products, increased demand and decreased supply can only mean one thing: prices soar. Rising steadily throughout the decade following the financial crisis, a post-pandemic boom sent house prices sky-high. The average home in the UK fetched a record £296,000 last October – almost triple the going rate at the turn of the millennium.

Wages have lagged behind this pace, having only doubled since that time. As a result, affordability has worsened in every local authority in the country over the past 25 years. A person in England can now expect to spend 8.3 times their annual salary on a home — twice the 4.2 ratio in 2000.

A similar story is playing out in the private rental market, where average lets have gone up by 4.7 percent in the last year alone. Add to these trends the surging energy bills driving up housing costs in the short term, and more people than ever find themselves thrust into a precarious position.

The country’s leading homelessness charities have been connecting the dots. Research by Shelter showed that at least 271,000 people were recorded as homeless in England at the start of 2023, including 123,000 children.

The Government’s latest statutory homelessness figures show 72,320 households in England became homeless or were at imminent risk of becoming so between July and September – a four percent rise on the year.

During the same period, an estimated 3,069 people were estimated to be sleeping rough, 26 percent more than the previous autumn. A December survey by Crisis found “unaffordable and precarious housing were key drivers of interviewees’ homelessness”.

The correlation between housing costs and homelessness is plain across the country. With an average house price of £530,000 in 2022, London was by far the most expensive place to settle. The capital also had the highest rate of rough sleepers per 100,000 in England at 9.8. 

Conversely, in the North East where property goes for over three times less (£156,500), those on the streets were over four times fewer (2.3 per 100,000).

This finding also holds at the local authority level, with the top three boroughs in terms of rough sleeping rates – the City of London (499), Westminster (122), and Camden (43) – all in the top seven in terms of median house prices.

Exacerbating these issues is the increasing number of empty homes in Britain. At the time of the last census in 2011, 4.2 percent of dwellings in England were unoccupied. Census 2021 put that figure at 6.1 percent – 1.5 million in total.

Action on Empty Homes (AHE) is the country’s leading campaign group calling for unused property to be brought back into good use. They estimate that the proportion of long-term empty homes – vacant for six months or more – hit a record 248,633 in 2022, over 11,000 more than the previous year.

Director of AHE Rebecca Moore told “We’re in this absurd situation where we’re living with empty homes instead of people living in them.

“Imagine you’re in temporary accommodation with your family and you’re literally looking at a home standing empty that your family could be in – that’s a huge loss of hope that you could ever be in the housing market or be renting a decent quality home.”

Rates of second-home ownership are higher in rural areas and on the coasts – where people are most likely to own a holiday home. Those unoccupied over the long term tend to be where property values are highest, which once again puts London in the spotlight.

The bricks and mortar of the capital are, in the eyes of the wealthy elite at home and abroad, investments offering both high returns and high security. All the way back in 2020, AHE called out this emerging trend of ‘financialisation’ – the use of housing as an asset rather than a human right or public utility. According to their report, this has exacerbated supply shortfalls and reduced affordability.

International investments of this kind are buoyed by the UK’s lax disclosure laws. The same month the invasion of Ukraine began, anti-corruption organisation Transparency International revealed £1.5billion-worth of property had been purchased by Russians accused of corruption or links to the Kremlin in the UK since 2016.

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The impact of this on homelessness is clear in the data. According to Census 2021, the local authority with the highest share of unoccupied dwellings on survey day was the very same with the highest rate of rough sleepers.

Almost one in three (32.9 percent) residences in the City of London had no one home. The familiar cast of Westminster (26.5 percent), Kensington and Chelsea (24.3 percent), and Camden (14.4 percent) all featured within the top 15.

In fact, of the 100 areas with the most vacant housing, 51 of them were also among the 100 with the highest rough sleeper rates. Priced out and pushed out of having a roof over their heads, thousands of people in England are homeless on the doorstep of empty houses.

The link isn’t concrete. Cities like London often have the largest proportion of homelessness because they offer people more services, ways to make money, and easier access to inner-city shelters compared to other areas. Yet, the experts say the data highlight a worrying and growing trend.

In a statement to, Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter said: “Across the country the housing emergency is ruining lives. Every day we see more and more people being pushed out of their local areas because of soaring house prices and extortionate private rents. So, it is always deeply frustrating to see properties sitting empty when so many people are in desperate need of a safe and secure home.”

Ms Moore of AHE added: “The role that empty homes can play in fixing the housing crisis is massively underrepresented and underplayed. In terms of what can actually happen, one of the things we call for is another national empty homes programme.

“We had a national empty homes programme in this country between 2012 and 2015, and what that meant was that local authorities were given funding and support so that owners could bring their empty properties back into use.”

The programme, she said, brought around 9,000 homes back into use — “pretty good going” for three years.

She continued: “It’s worth that investment when you consider that around £1.2billion a year is spent on housing homeless people in temporary accommodation in this country. When we’re talking about possibly around £20 to £30,000 to bring a home back into use in an environmentally sound way, retrofitting empty homes seems to me a really solid investment.”

A DLUHC spokesperson said: “We are committed to delivering 300,000 new homes per year and investing £11.5billion to build the affordable, quality homes this country needs. 232,820 new homes were built last year, the third-highest rate for the last 30 years. We’ve also giving councils over £650million over the next two years to help prevent homelessness before it happens.”

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