Turn unused office space into housing support for the homeless

Unused office space is taking over our cities, whilst the homeless population is skyrocketing. Jim McGregor writes that it's time to put those properties to better use.

March 3, 2018 · 8 min read

It’s a familiar sight around by me, to drive past a megaplex of glassy vacant office spaces. Sometimes I’ll go through an industrial park and lot-after-lot will be empty. Some have been like that for years and it’s a frustrating thing to see when I’ve just come out of town and seen a long-time friend begging for change on the high street, showing me the abscess on his head that developed from a spot.

Large chunks of small satellite towns on the outskirts of Brum are seemingly void of any human activity at all. Apart from blokes in high-vis sitting in stalls, clutching a walkie talkie, nursing a cuppa into life and squinting, thinking, “what’s he doin’ round here?”

It’s amazing really, the space and time, the resources that have been wasted on these sorts of projects. Run-down semi-rural Local Authorities providing developers with lofty-Blairite plans and generous grants for tributes to a 28-days later Canary Wharf. TO-LET – 25,000 square feet of office-space lease – billboards like these catching no-one’s eye but birds looking down for a prime target to shit on.

It’s not just London. Towns throughout the midlands are suffering from a chronic housing crisis. Though, those Local Authorities are likely cash-strapped and teetering on self-destruction – some of them Tory, some of them not. Affordable-housing projects for these places are a hard thing to come-by, or non-existent. Put on the back burner and not even considered; a rigorous austerity programme is on the mind.

In 2013 Eric Pickles and his understudy Nick Boles saw out a radical right-wing flag-ship policy; to do away with regulatory barriers for property developers so they can transform commercial properties into residential homes. After the 2008 crash the number of vacant office space in London spiked, five-years later it dropped – not significantly, but noticeably, by around 20%. Un-sentimental property developers took Pickles’ heed and before long those office spaces were apartments. Many of them about the size of a cattle-pen and costing you an arm and a leg. Since then, the preferred length of rent and lease has shortened, less houses are being built, no council houses at all and costs are climbing higher. Housing insecurity plagues the nation.

Needless to say, it is no coincidence that homelessness exploded and the position of the precariat is ever more precarious and this radical proposal has mostly just lined the pockets of fat cat landlords. Commercial landlords have even been cutting leases short and almost overnight turfing businesses out an developing those properties into flats. Conversions are then sat on whilst local prices soar and they cash in or don’t at all. It’s difficult to know how much of an effect this has had on the number of empty commercial spaces, as the Tories have seemingly stopped monitoring it. Projects to redevelop office space are beholden to the charity of the developer to provide genuinely decent and affordable housing. But whilst all that space lies empty, and the homelessness problem swells to ___ proportions, many are left wondering – is it time to put that space to better use? Could this be the solution to helping rough-sleepers get their lives back on track?

There are obvious ideological barriers and practical incentives barring the way. Big developers, with the resources to actually pull off these types of works usually outsource their management and deals to agents, who like to keep the residential and commercial markets separate. The community-driven and Bristol-based campaign Abolish Empty Office Buildings has had some successes, but the scale and organisation required is somewhat beyond the capabilities of groups such as this.

But what about with a Labour government committed to eradicating homelessness? A Labour government carrying out a building and public investment programme unseen since the time of Atlee? If Local Authorities were given the necessary powers, there’s prime space for the taking and in just a couple of years we could eradicate homelessness and swiftly fulfil a pledge.

The situation in Birmingham is obscene. Bodies litter streets, beneath the arches of old buildings and old pubs, sleeping bags out and faces exposed to one of the coldest winters in a while – right behind the jewel in the crown of the cities “regeneration” project, Grand Central. Just 200 metres in the opposite direction towards Chinatown, there’s three stories of empty offices – undesirable location and the changing nature of our economy have left these properties derelict since I can remember.

As we know, a disproportionate number of people on the street also suffer with addiction and mental health problems. It would be naïve to believe that the folks out there, given a property, would instantly be able to turn their lives around. It is also common knowledge and backed up with evidence that it is incredibly hard to adjust after the experience, and get yourself straight. But it’s also impossible to start that process when you’re sleeping rough. That’s why these projects are important – not just to house people, but to give them proper support to get back on track.

It’s not just that the planning process is speedy and the properties are easily renovated, but they are perfectly suited to the needs of those who are currently homeless because the potential is so broad. You can imagine the sort of affairs they would be; condos with a kitchenette, typical of the more modern YMCA’s. Independent living but in a communal setting; with room for any number of in-house projects and schemes dedicated to aiding residents. Whole wings and floors of offices with counsellors, support workers, housing officers and addiction treatment workers. On-site staff, offered good wages and plucked from the wallowing private sector, much like their patients. Giving a financial kicking to those who seek profit from our poor health in the process.

It’s not just the office spaces either; commercial properties such as old shops are not hard to come by and unpopular on the market as the high-street is dying. For those who do not suffer from addiction or mental health problems but just the neoliberal capital regime; these spaces are ideal for those who might find the previous setting unsuitable. With local authorities as the driving force and the largely Labour-led metropolitan councils steering, they could be ready quickly, without the need for costly, lengthy building projects. The key here is to provide people with the ability to get their lives back on track whilst the larger structural issues are addressed and greater security can be attained.

We don’t have to stop at just short-term fixes to our homeless problem. Young people and families on waiting lists in smaller towns or paying extortionate rent could apply to live in blocks on a cooperative basis.  The good work by Preston council, in finding creative ways of stopping the neoliberal rot, is not only taking a swing at austerity but also the ideology. This approach is also popular, the successes are obvious and the projects ambitious and community-driven.

You never know, these co-op blocks could become radical hotbeds, hives of political activity inspired by mutual cooperation and collective responsibility. If Barcelona can do it, so can Brum. This all relies on wishful thinking, but a Labour government might not be so far out of reach. Next time you look at those buildings, out the window of a bus or driving by, think about what they are and what they could be.

I haven’t seen my mate in a while. Last time I saw him the snow was thick and he wasn’t very well, but when I do see him – I’m gonna tell him I have an idea.

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