If we’re to solve the housing crisis, creating new homes is just as vital as building them

The housing crisis won’t be solved by building alone, but converting and repurposing empty buildings into homes can make a valuable contribution, writes Jonathan Drake – and the private rented sector could play a crucial role in this

IT was a proud moment for Salix Homes to learn our private sector leasing arm – Salix Living – has been shortlisted for this year’s Northern Housing Awards in the Excellence in Improving Private Rented Sector Standards category.

This fantastic news has prompted me to think about the benefits of utilising the private rented sector as a means to tackle the housing crisis – something that Salix Homes has been really driving forward since we set Salix Living up in 2012.

The obvious fact is that, as a nation we are never going to be able build enough new homes. The Government wants 300,000 new homes every year in order to meet current demand – I don’t believe that’s achievable.

We need this number of homes, but we don’t necessarily need to build them – and this is where organisations like Salix Living come in.

I firmly believe we are asking the wrong question in the housing debate – instead of saying how can we build more homes; we should be saying how can we create more homes? And by doing this we change the focus of the debate.

The answer lies in reusing and repurposing existing empty properties. There are thousands of empty properties in Greater Manchester and thousands of people on the housing waiting lists – we need to bring the two together.

And here in Salford, we are doing just that. Over the past five years, we’ve worked with Salford Council and private landlords to create more than 200 new homes by bringing empty buildings back into use. If every local authority in Greater Manchester did the same – that’s 2,000 extra homes for the people who need them most.

These are not new-builds. They’re not even all houses. We’ve seen pubs, shops and even an old job centre repurposed into much-needed affordable housing. And the benefits go far wider than providing a roof over someone’s head.

Take the old job centre for example. It had stood empty for 25 years, it was a blot on the landscape and a target for anti-social behaviour and vandalism – now it’s providing 41 affordable homes and that blight in the community has gone.

A lot of these empty buildings like shops and pubs are also in prime locations – in town centres and on key transport routes. By bringing these properties back into use, we are putting people back where they belong, in the heart of the community, and helping to revive high streets by getting them populated again.

Social lettings agencies, like Salix Living, also have a crucial role to play in driving up standards in the private rented sector (PRS).

At the cheaper end of the PRS market – the Housing Benefit end – we’re all too familiar with the horror stories of inadequate housing and unscrupulous landlords.

I believe the sector needs a more proactive approach to ensuring the PRS provides high quality accommodation to those at the cheaper end of the market.  One way to achieve this is to expand the successful private sector social leasing schemes that operate at this level in the market place, like Salix Living.

The concept is simple – a social lettings agency that leases and manages properties on behalf of private landlords at LHA rates, meaning tenants are generally those left languishing on housing waiting lists. We ensure the property is maintained to a good standard and meets all compliance regulations.

The results? Well we are helping to drive up standards to provide good quality, affordable accommodation; we’re providing more homes to those in housing need; plus, we’re tackling homelessness and helping councils to make significant savings by reducing their dependence on using B&Bs for people at risk of homelessness.

What’s more, the offer is attractive to private landlords, who are incentivised by guaranteed rent packages, managed tenancies, consistent standards and access to funding.

Used in the right way, the PRS can really help deliver real cost benefits to the public purse and provide a long-term solution to the housing crisis.

Jonathan Drake, Salix Homes service director