Frank Gavurin reports on the growth of the Global Empty Homes Network

Since its inception in August 2020, as the attendance list at the end of this article shows, the Global Empty Homes Network (GEHN) has been growing and accumulating relevant expertise from the third sector, academia, empty homes policy practitioners, and more from across the world. 

At the meeting on 30 June, attendees laid out their primary research and campaigning areas, which led to a discussion on the diverging causes and consequences of the underutilisation of housing in different national and regional contexts.

Even within the confines of a nation, the causes can be multifarious. In the case of South Africa, for instance, Mamadi Malthako explained that empty housing is possessed not only by international investors, but also state organisations and mining companies in areas where their operations have been wound down.

Conflicts between provincial and local governments over responsibility to develop infrastructure have also left more than a thousand new homes in Pretoria sitting empty due to the lack of amenities.

It was suggested by Frank Alexander that it may be useful to develop a typology of different vacancies; while empty homes may be a symptom of underlying socio-economic problems, said problems are far from uniform. Empty homes will often cluster at the high and low end of the market; though both are undoubtedly of concern, these different types of vacancy may require very different policy responses.

Nevertheless, common trends are visible, from homes left empty due to rural depopulation in Scotland and Denmark, as Andy Mosley and Jesper Jensen explained, to vacancies caused by speculative ‘buy-to-leave’ investments in New York City and London. 

Another area of discussion, brought forward by Sam Stein and Kristin Siglin, was the redevelopment of non-residential real estate into homes and the challenges these redevelopments entail. It was agreed that while there may not always be the political will for refurbishing and retrofitting empty homes and bringing them back into use, these are generally preferable to buildings not initially designed for habitation.

At the same time, it was suggested that with the economic changes brought about by COVID-19, more office blocks, high street shops and hotels may become available for residential redevelopment. More thinking is needed in this area, but the retrofitting of existing buildings will be an important tool going forwards, especially with the climate crisis becoming more pressing by the day.

The GEHN will meet again in early August, and participants look forward to further discussion of the upcoming MIPIM property conference, and more broadly how to combat property speculation and turn vacant properties into decent, sustainable and affordable housing.

Meetings in May and June of 2021 have been attended by the following: 

Andy Moseley (Scotland): Senior policy officer at Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, funded by Scottish government and hosted by Shelter. 

Mamadi Matlhako (South Africa): Director of postgraduate school at University of Fort Hare. Research interests primarily in land issues in South Africa. 

Jesper Jensen (Denmark): Senior researcher, University of Aalborg. Research on empty homes, speculative real estate investment and rural depopulation in Denmark. 

Frank Alexander (USA): Co-founder of Center for Community Progress, formerly law professor focused on finance and real estate. 

Helene Caloir (USA): Director of the New York State Housing Stabilization fund at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. Focused on assisting municipalities and non-profits deal with vacant houses and provide affordable housing. 

Karl Fitzgerald (Australia): Director of Advocacy at Prosper Australia, which measures vacancy and campaigns for fairer taxation of land and against property speculation. 

Samuel Stein (USA): Housing Policy Analyst at Community Service Society of New York. Focused on dual nature of empty homes in New York (high-end wealth investment vs. blighted low-income properties), turning vacant properties into social housing. 

Kristin Siglin (USA): Vice President for Policy and Partnerships at National Community Stabilization Trust. Focused largely on policy issues surrounding vacant single-family homes. 

Rex McKenzie (England): Senior lecturer in economics, Kingston University. Researching wealth chain investment in property in British cities.  

Alan Mallach (USA): Senior Fellow at Center for Community Progress. City planner and writer who has published on affordable housing and bringing vacant properties back into use. 

Camila Jordan (Brazil): Executive director of TETO Brazil, an NGO which aims to combat poverty and create emergency housing relief through community engagement and mobilisation. 

Will McMahon (England): Director of Action on Empty Homes, an NGO focused on bringing empty properties back into use, improving data on vacancies, and combating speculative housing investment.

Organisations, activists and academic researchers interested in joining the GEHN should contact: [email protected]