Saturday, 5 July 2014

Croydon To Lease Housing for the Homeless and Improve Action on Empty Properties

Improved action to house homeless families in the Borough and bring empty properties back into use is outlined in two papers to the Cabinet on 14 July.

Purchase of Homes for Homeless Families

It will create 189 homes as temporary accommodation for homeless families on 10 year leases on Concord House at  454-458 London Road (126 units) and Sycamore House at 799 London Road (63 units).

Comprising 149 purpose built studios and 40 one bed self-contained flats with a shower room and kitchenette, of which 8 flats on the ground floor of Concord House are designed for disabled use, these temporary homes will not be generous but an improvement on living in bed and breakfast. The studio apartments are to be fitted out with 2 single beds and the flats with 4 single beds to maximise flexibility.  Given that at 23 June there were a total of 513 households in bed and breakfast these 189 units are a significant contribution, as well as saving on the cost of bed and breakfast.

This leasing mirrors the experience I had in signing up blocks of flats in the private sector leasing scheme West Hampstead Housing Association ran for Camden Council in the 1990s.

Given the multiple problems homeless families face in getting their lives back on track, an efficient and sensitive housing management and welfare advice service will need to be provided. The child density across the whole age range is likely to be high, so there may well need to be targeted support services. e.g organised play. Assuming these blocks will be on entry-home systems it would be worthwhile considering wiring each flat with some form of free internet access so that families can link in with information and services on line.

It is to be hoped that in the future the Council might consider buying the freehold of private blocks, especially those with smaller units, which could then be offered, with moving assistance, to Council tenants who wish to move from larger properties, thus releasing those properties for family use.

Empty Properties

Council action to bring empty properties into use is an important additional tool to ease homelessness.

The Council estimates that there are 636 long term empty properties in Croydon as at 31 March 2014 which have been empty for more than 2 years is 298; more than 6 months 163; empty and owner  receiving care or giving care elsewhere 133 and empty for miscellaneous reasons. Of the 1444 properties noted as empty in the Council Tax records the remainder are believed to now be back in use.

The Council plans to encourage empty property owners to bring properties back into use by:

  • By continuing its capital funding for a grants programme over the next two years.
  • Using empty property grants more flexibly (including making payments in instalments while works are underway);
  • Offering incentives to owners to declare their properties as empty, and a package of assistance to help with moving where required;
  • Improving joint working between Empty Property Officers, Corporate Debt Recovery, Revenues and Benefits, Council Deputyship including arrangements to share information where this will help identify owners of empty properties;
  • Carrying out a further targeted audit of Council Tax list empty homes over the next 12 months;
  • Improving administrative support and IT equipment for Empty Property Officers to enable them to use time more effectively through mobile working.
It will continue with enforcement action:
  • responding to complaints and enquiries about long term empty properties, inspecting empty properties for hazards, obtaining court warrants and orders to enter empty properties, joint working with the Housing Enforcement Section to tackle any problems with pests, drainage or refuse, joint working with Corporate Debt Recovery to take action for bankruptcy and enforced sale, and taking action to compulsorily purchase the property.
Priority actions will include:
  • Increasing the frequency of compulsory purchase order applications;
  • Using Empty Dwelling Management Orders to bring empty properties back into use;
  • Negotiating the purchase of empty properties where appropriate;
  • Increasing the use of Planning powers to improve appearance of property (S215 T&C planning 1990); Building Act notices to improve condition of property; Environmental Health Act 1990 powers to tackle pest and drainage issues;
  • Engaging with Banks and Building Societies to repossess properties in poor condition/sell repossessions quickly.
What More Can be Done?
  •        Working in partnership with housing associations for them to buy up empty properties.
  •        Ensuring that when the Council buys or compulsory purchases empty properties it is ready to move in quickly to carry out the works.
  •        After a minimum amount of work to clean and make safe, letting suitable purchased empty properties as temporary accommodation for the homeless until full scale conversion or improvement works can be carried out.
  •        Systematically Identifying empty or underused rooms above shops with a view to helping the owners/shopkeepers to turn them in to resident accommodation. 

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