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Cambridge City Council

Empty Homes Week 2024: Empty property bought back by council is now a home for Cambridge family

6 March 2024

Cambridge City Council is marking the national Empty Homes Week this week, to highlight the support available in the city to bring properties which have remained unoccupied for long periods of time back into use, to help address the shortage of affordable housing in Cambridge and provide much-needed homes for people who need them.

When left empty for long periods of time, properties can easily deteriorate, becoming a burden to owners and increasingly expensive to bring back into use. The council can offer practical and financial support to property owners to help address long-term empty homes.

Case study 1

The council’s Empty Homes Officer, was alerted to an empty property on Coldham’s Lane by a colleague in the Council Tax team.

“They informed me the owner had died and the only apparent heir was an elderly cousin in America. My colleague had contacted the cousin regarding Council Tax but they had said they were not interested in the property and would not take on responsibility for it as they did not want it.

“The house was an ex-council house, bought decades ago through the Right to Buy scheme and still in the same family. The current owner had died unexpectedly, and the house had been unoccupied for some time. It was likely it would remain this way for the foreseeable future since there was nobody nearby to deal with the estate.

“My work is to bring empty homes back into use, so taking into consideration the relative’s reluctance and difficulty to deal with the property, I contacted the firm of genealogists I work with and asked them to investigate whether there may be any other heirs to this estate.

“It was not long before they found a second person who also was a distant relative of the lady who had died. I organised a joint visit to the property to assess its condition and understand what needed to be done. The owner had been a collector and there were various objects which would also be considered as part of the estate and valued accordingly. Most importantly the deeds to the house were amongst the belongings which would make progress on the sale of the estate a lot simpler.

“With this information the genealogists were able to approach both relatives and offer to carry out all the necessary actions to tie up the estate on their behalf. Following their consent, the genealogists were able to apply to the courts to obtain power of attorney. Once this was granted they proceeded with the instructions they had been given by the heirs, to move forward with clearing out the property and preparing it to be sold.

“Once the property was empty, we had a conversation about how to move forward. I was aware that the city council  was running the Local Authority Housing Fund Refugee Scheme which was specifically to buy a certain number of properties to be used for refugee families.

“I contacted my colleague who was in charge of sourcing suitable properties and described this house and the situation surrounding it.  We visited the property together – it was the right size and in relatively good condition, just needing an updated kitchen and bathroom. It was decided the house would be put forward for the scheme.

“The city council and the power of attorney both carried out their valuations, and following this and a discussion with the heirs, a fair price was agreed upon and the property was bought by the city council under the scheme. In consultation with the Asylum and Refugee Project the council’s Voids Team organised the refurbishment work to bring the bathroom and the kitchen up to standard. The Asylum and Refugee Project team identified a family in need of housing and the house was furnished to accommodate them. The family moved into the property at the end of the summer.

“What started off as an empty property with little prospect of being brought back into use in the short term ended up as housing stock for the City Council and a home for a family in need. This positive outcome was achieved by strong partnership work both within and outside the council. Five different departments came together to bring this result about, highlighting the importance of working together across different services to bring about positive results for our community.”

Case study 2

“Another case involved an empty home I had a complaint about. I wrote to the owner who contacted me straight away as they were very grateful to get some help. I arranged a locksmith to meet me at the house, as she had not been given the keys back by previous tenants. We found the house in a terrible state – it looked like it had been used by squatters. It was filthy, turned upside down, uninhabitable.

“I asked the owner if she would be interested in the council restoring the property and renting it out on her behalf, through our social lettings agency Town Hall Lettings (THL). She was very interested in this. I arranged a joint visit and it was agreed the house would be incredibly useful to THL, and once refurbished it would be offered to a family in temporary accommodation. All works will be funded by THL and then paid back by the owner through a rent deduction.

“I found a company that could clear out the house and garden and deep clean the property. This has now been done and the house is ready for the refurbishment to go ahead.”

Empty homes in Cambridge – what you can do

If you would like to bring an empty property back into use, or know of an empty property near you, Cambridge City Council can help, including through:

  • Informal advice and assistance.
  • Referrals to Town Hall Lettings the council’s not for profit letting agent
  • In some circumstances to find suitable companies to do works for owners.
  • Offering to buy empty homes from the owners
  • Offering assistance to reduce VAT on refurbishment work if buying a home that has been empty for two or more years, and work starts within the year after purchase.

In some circumstances the council may also consider using enforcement action with regards to empty properties to make them safe and habitable.

We will also soon start using Community Protection Notices to tackle problem empties that are causing issues to neighbours. Our Empty Homes Service not only gets houses back into occupation but also responds to and solves a large spectrum of problems originating in empty homes, which need fixing.

In the last year this aspect of the service has been particularly busy and effective, undertaking a variety of tasks including:

  • Removing dead animals from empty homes
  • Cutting down hedges which were facilitating rats getting into a loft
  • Getting a serious and prolonged leak mended over a shared passageway
  • Clearing a garden of its own self-made ‘landfill’ full of ancient packets of meat
  • Alerting owners to the fact their empty home had four inches of water throughout the ground floor

Cllr Gerri Bird, Executive Councillor for Housing and Homelessness, said: “We’re committed to bringing as many empty properties as possible back into use, as part of our work to help address the serious housing shortage in Cambridge. 

“We try to be very proactive in identifying empty homes, but the Cambridge public can really help by identifying any properties which they think are standing empty – for whatever reason – and letting us know about them so we can investigate further. We can then work closely with owners to understand their particular situation, and help owners create a source of income from their property, including by letting them out as much-needed homes for others.”

Seen an empty home in Cambridge that you think should be investigated further? Report it online here Empty homes - Cambridge City Council

The executive councillor leading on this matter for Cambridge City Council is Gerri Bird (Labour), Executive Councillor for Housing and Homelessness. Spokespersons from the other political groups on this issue are Cllr Anthony Martinelli (Liberal Democrat), and Cllr Elliot Tong (Green/Independent Group).