Ideas for change: Community-led self-help housing


Canopy in Leeds provides a self-help housing option for homeless people

A new era of housing organisations is coming up from the streets, taking over empty properties and helping re-build communities, as Jon Fitzmaurice explains.

Many people have now forgotten that quite a few of today’s largest housing associations had very modest beginnings and were often the creation of local activists. For instance, huge organisations like Paragon, Midland Heart, Genesis, Notting Hill and Hyde all started off as very small scale initiatives, driven by groups of people simply getting hold of a few empty street properties.

For a long time empty street property provided a relatively quick route into housing for local self-help organisations that wanted to house their members or were working with marginalised people in need of affordable housing. However, in recent years it tailed off, as eligibility to receive government funding became more restrictive and money was increasingly diverted towards large housing providers engaged in new build developments.

Things suddenly changed however in 2012. The government announced £100m funding for an Empty Homes Programme and following some concerted lobbying, £30m was ring-fenced for an Empty Homes Community Grants Programme, through which over 100 community-led organisations have received funding, either to buy or to lease empty properties in need of repair, in which they can house their members or clients. A further £20m became available via a second round of funding in 2013.

Suddenly people and organisations that had been denied a chance to procure housing for themselves found that once again they could. What’s more, organisations were not going to be required to be registered with the Homes and Communities Agency in order to receive funding and the years were rolled back!

Tribal won the contract to run the programme and put in place a straightforward bidding process, matched by uncomplicated administration. Government often talks about the need for ‘proportionate’ procedures and that’s what emerged – something that really helps community-led housing to flourish.

A total of 147 organisations bid for funding and 95 were successful, rising to 110 after round two. Who were they? A mixture of charities, community interest companies, community benefit organisations, co-ops, and community land trust. A very broad church, united by the prospect of getting hold of housing, quickly and relatively simply. Between them, bringing back into use a wide variety of buildings, tackling a range of different problems and they’ve been housing a wide variety of people.

On the next pages are some examples of what’s been going on:


The Granby 4 Streets market in Cairns Street, Liverpool

Local area regeneration in Hull, Middlesborough and Liverpool

In Hull, where the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder programme had ground to a halt, Giroscope has been working in partnership with the local authority buying up and repairing abandoned properties in the Boulevard area. By the end of the programme they will have acquired and renovated 48 properties and will have doubled their housing stock.

Further north, Middlesbrough CLT, a start-up community land trust, managed to persuade the local authority to transfer three properties to them at zero cost, as have Granby 4 Streets in Liverpool, where another five properties are being transferred, all to be repaired with Empty Homes programme funding. Both of these are good examples of street property providing a ‘first base’ for new community-led housing organisations.



Latch Project Leeds 2Opportunities for training, apprentices and volunteering:

Many projects provide opportunities for training and apprenticeships. In Stockton, Community Campus has been acquiring properties and then renovating them by means of their in-house social enterprise, Community Campus Trading. In 2012 they took on 15 young people, 10 of whom were supported by Stockton Council. Of these, eight have continued to be employed by Campus, three secured employment elsewhere and one returned to collegeCanopy Workers.

In Leeds, both Canopy and Latch work with volunteers and trainees in repairing properties in Beeston and Harehills. Canopy has around 25 volunteers at any one time, while three of Latch’s volunteers are now self-employed. Historically both organisations had relied heavily on just leasing properties, but being able to build up an asset base has transformed their prospects.                        

In London a small charity called Phases also works with trainees and has brought back into use properties that large housing associations have declined to tackle as being too difficult and costly!

As with all these projects they capitalise on local knowledge and intelligence in order to get results – something that large housing organisations start to lose out on.



rothermere houseCreating a live/work space in Hastings:

Meanwhile Space has made its name in finding uses for redundant retail and commercial property, usually on a short term basis. Thanks to the Empty Homes Programme funding they’ve been able to tackle some more ambitious projects, including a disused 1960s large office building in Hastings. It has acquired Rothermere House in Hastings with match funding and is bringing it back to life as Rock House, a provider of workspace, accommodation and a local community resource.

Leasowe Castle Wallasey External + Gary

The former Leasowe Castle pub in Wallasey in Merseyside

Turning commercial buildings into residential spaces in Liverpool:

Elsewhere, there many examples of redundant commercial buildings being brought back into residential use, many of which are pubs.

Access to Training & Employment, for example, has acquired and renovated two redundant pubs in Liverpool to provide housing for young people and a training centre on the ground floor.






The re-design for 13 Linden Terrace, an empty property purchased by Hill Holt Wood and now being renovated ecologically

Creating social enterprise out of empty homes:

Finally, there are those organisations that weren’t previously involved in providing housing, but which could see an opportunity to add value to their existing work, through this new source of funding.

One such organisation was Hill Holt Wood in Norton Disney, Lincolnshire, which runs a 33 acre wood in as a social enterprise, works with young disadvantaged people and has architectural students on placement.

They saw an opportunity to combine these resources and, having secured funding, set about acquiring and repairing houses for their workforce in nearby Gainsborough.


Over the last two years great strides have been made in putting community-led self-help housing back on the map. Organisations have found out about how to acquire and manage property, how to use their new-found assets to secure loans from social lenders like Unity, Charity Bank and Big Issue Invest, and even how to persuade local authorities, in areas of low demand, to transfer properties at zero cost.

The Empty Homes funding programme comes to an end in March 2015 and what is now needed is further funding, on a similar basis, to enable many of the 110 organisations involved in this programme to capitalise on what they’ve achieved and to move forward. There’s a definite feeling of déjà vu!



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