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That “Empty Housing” myth

November 18th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized by

Opponents of “urban sprawl” and “Greenfield development” propose a number of ruses for increasing London’s housing stock without building on previously undeveloped land – indeed, sometimes without building at all. One favourite is the “empty houses” myth. According to its advocates, huge numbers of houses are currently lying empty, just waiting to house the homeless.

For example, The Guardian … estimate that “more than 450,000 properties have been empty for at least six months… 25% higher than previously thought… enough to put a roof over the heads of a quarter of the families on council house waiting lists”.

But even if one ignores the absurdity of implying that every one of these properties can be brought into use, leaving no home in Britain unoccupied for more than six months, this apparently impressive number of empty homes is dwarfed by the demand for housing. Shelter England claim that there are 5 million people waiting on housing registers.

In London, 30,526 properties had been empty for six months or more as of August 2011, just 1 per cent of London’s total housing stock of 3.3 million. Yet the Mayor of London estimates that London needs at least 32,500 new homes every year for the next 20-25 years if it is to meet current and future demand. Empty housing simply cannot fill the gap.

5 Responses to “That “Empty Housing” myth”

  1. Tristan Says:

    I wonder how much housing is under utilised? Or perhaps that shouldn’t be asked – don’t want people to think of kicking out people who have ‘too much space’…

    I suspect much of the empty housing is also in areas suffering from depopulation rather than where people are actually moving to.

  2. externalities Says:

    It’s not a case of either/or. We need to use every single option to improve the housing situation.

  3. Tom Papworth Says:

    @Tristan: If you mean in the sense of a small ratio of occupants to rooms/space, I imagine the answer is “a lot”, but that of course assumes that one is able to define what the “right level” of use is. Such an assessment is utterly subjective: only the owner of a resource is able to decide what the best use of it is. Perhaps they are maximising their utility in a way that an external “expert” cannot possibly judge.

    The only way to unpick that would be through the price mechanism, but there are clear transaction costs with property. It may very well be that a person would happily move from a large property to a smaller one and realise some capital, but that the cost of moving, paying stamp duty, lawyers fees etc. undermines the utility-maximising effect of the transaction.

    As regards your second point, I think you’re spot on. Even among London’s 30,526 (!) vacant houses, the idea that a property, fixed ain a location and far-from-fungible with any other property, automatically meets the demand of a “homeseeker” (a group whose needs are frequently assumed to be homogenous) is highly unlikely.

    The truth is that we need to develop housing where people want to live. I suspect that it would be a lot easier to persuade those who fear “urban sprawl” and environmental degredation of this if it were easy to convert previously developed land back to a more pleasing state. Sadly, that involves costs that are hard to internalise.

  4. Tom Papworth Says:


    I totally agree. My point is not that the fact of empty housing is a myth. My point is that the suggestion that it is a panacea for the housing shortage is a convenient lie told by opponents of development.

    Bearing in mind that eliminating all empty housing would be impossible, and that (as noted above) some of it does not meet demand except on paper, and that the “supply” of empty housing would quickly dry up even if the government were able to continually bring empty houses into use, it’s unlikely that empty housing could meet more than a few percentage points of the demand over the next quarter century (or even the next coupel of years).

  5. Tom Papworth Says:

    Interesting figures from DCLG’s Housing and Planning Statistics 2010.

    In London in 2009, there were around 9,300 local authority dwellings and 5,827 housing association dwellings that were vacant, suggesting that approaching half of the empty properties in London are “Social” housing.


    One more reason why the “rapacious landlords keeping property off the market” narrative is flawed.