Feature: Our strategy for ending the UK housing crisis needs a deep clean

By Dave Rudge, operations manager at REACT Specialist Cleaning

The UK’s so-called ‘housing crisis’ has grown into one of our country’s biggest challenges over the past decade. The lack of affordable, high quality accommodation has meant many, including those who worked on the pandemic’s frontline, have been unable to find suitable homes.

To demonstrate the problem’s scale, homelessness charity Shelter claims low quality housing affects the health of around 20% of renters in England. Population growth is exacerbating the situation.

While the impact is evident, the solution is not. The current government had hoped to build 300,000 new houses each year by the mid-2020s to create more available options. At the moment, we’re falling short of that figure. The pandemic only made it worse. The construction of all those new houses also presents a nightmare for those trying to reduce the country’s carbon emissions to achieve our net-zero targets. One thing is clear: new housing alone won’t solve the problem.

Filling the void of empty housing

A parliamentary briefing published in February suggested politicians have been unable to agree on a successful strategy, but do accept it will require change on multiple fronts.  “Commentators agree there’s no ‘silver bullet’ and call for a range of solutions across policy areas,” it reads.

One of those solutions needs to be a reduction in ‘void’ properties across the country. Void properties are those without anyone using or living in them, and there are almost 650,000 of them in England as of late 2020. Making those homes possible living options for people should be a priority. It’s quicker. It’s cheaper. Cleaning, updating, or refurbishing a property is also a handsome margin better for the environment than building a new one. According to carbon expert Mike Berners Lee, a new home’s carbon footprint is ten times bigger than the average refurb of an old one. This is a fact we must not overlook in our attempt to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Successive governments have already pumped millions of pounds into initiatives attempting to make void housing available. As part of the New Homes Bonus scheme, for example, the government matched any local council tax earnings received from void properties brought back into use. But the initiative has achieved limited results. In 2020, over a third of empty houses had remained so for over six months – 20% more than in 2016.

Empty housing damages communities

Unsuitable living conditions present one of the biggest barriers to landlords, housing associations, and local councils making properties available. Leaving housing empty only makes the conditions worse. The longer they’re left, the worse the conditions become.

Perhaps the most prominent cause of unsuitable living conditions is posed by pests. Rat populations grew during the pandemic, and void homes are acting as perfect breeding grounds. Without anyone inside, empty homes provide a brilliant source of undisturbed shelter. They also provide food – human food abandoned by previous tenants, sewage, and even other pests. Toilets and leaking pipes are easy-access sources of water.

Once a rat community has taken over an empty house, the house acts as a home base for the rats to venture out into the wider community. They proceed to spread diseases to humans and harmful fleas to pets. They’re also known to destroy insulation and gnaw through wiring, further depleting the quality of housing in an area.

Besides rodent squatters, there’s the risk of human squatters. Most Brits are well versed in the concept of ‘squatters rights’, but squatting is almost always illegal. It can lead to vandalism, arson, and general damage to a house. Although there are no accurate figures, past suggestions have estimated as many as 20,000 people squat in empty homes in the UK. That’s no small number.

Properties left empty on a short-term basis are also vulnerable to mould. They’re often furnished with soft furniture and, in winter, this can provide the perfect environment for a fungus to spread. Once set in, the fungus can lead to lasting damage beyond the help of a spring clean.

All these factors resulting from houses left empty for too long leave a significant mark on the local community. Tenants want to live in vibrant neighbourhoods filled with people. They want neighbours over for dinner, not empty houses filled with rodents.

Deep cleaning as a necessary step in making void housing liveable again

Such issues described here can become chronic when left unchallenged. They also make it a lot more difficult for property owners to encourage new tenants into their homes, for obvious reasons. To prevent them, landlords need to take a more rigorous approach to cleaning void properties.

At an early stage, cleaning properties as soon as tenants have moved out can prevent serious problems from evolving. Perishable foods, which attract vermin and damage surfaces as they decompose, can be collected. Kitchen grease can be removed. Intensive carpet and floor work will then pick up any residual foodstuffs and crumbs that would help to support household pests.

At a later stage, empty housing might require more extreme measures. Mould can be cleaned up and preventative measures put in place. If squatters have visited, surfaces damaged by arson or vandalism can be returned to their original state. In some cases a landlord may decide to refurbish a property, in which case a deep clean can get it into the right hygienic condition for builders and decorators to work in.

Although there may be no ‘silver bullet’ to tackle the UK’s housing crisis, it’s clear that we need to reduce the number of void properties. The existence of so many empty homes while people struggle to afford their rent is absurd. The strategy landlords choose to make more existing properties available will require efforts on every front, and a better approach to cleaning must be one of them.