Cities, mobile capital and housing vacancy: Report on meeting organised by Action for Empty Homes

Report on meeting organised by Action on Empty Homes (chair Will McMahon)

Speakers

This meeting looked at the situation in the UK, the USA, Denmark, Australia, and Argentina. The issue of investment in housing, leading to empty homes was found in all countries though there were some differences. Speakers spoke of the problem of biopolarity, which means that some areas receive a lot of investment in property while other areas are depopulated. This trend is most common in the US with loads of investment going to popular destinations such as New York, California, Miami, and the sunbelt states.

Rex McKenzie stressed that in the UK the situation is a lack of affordable homes. The same situation exists in Scotland. High levels of vacant stock drive up rents because of the shortage of supply.

Samuel Stein spoke of the situation in New York City. There new build luxury high rises, never to be lived in but bought as an investment. NYC continues to be a place where the rich park and hide money. This is very similar to the situation in London and other places such as parts of Argentina and other parts of the US. However, in NYC they have the additional problem of landlords trying to combine units into one so they can get around the rent controls that came into place in 2019. Instead of renting out units they wait until they can “Frankenstein” them, so that the new larger units can avoid the rent controls.

Foreign investment is an issue but that doesn’t mean that domestic investors are not a problem. The Chinese have invested in places like Las Vegas and California and Latin Americans have bought up properties in Miami. (A comment was made that investment seems to be in places that will be affected by climate change so maybe not so wise!) This investment is motivated by the desire of the rich to have an alternative base in case of instability in their own countries.

Rex pointed out that in Britain, with the decline of manufacturing, increasingly business is making profits out of rents- a rentier capitalism.  Speakers highlighted the fact that as investment increases in property, the amount of empty homes goes up. This shows that investment is not actually benefitting the people of the area. Prices go up, rents go up, and empty homes go up.

The session finished with speakers trying to answer a question about what is being done to tackle the problem of empty homes and air b n bs. Unfortunately, there have been few initiatives and even when local government, such as Barcelona, has developed policies there is no evidence that they have been effective.

Initiatives include:

  • Canada- banned foreign investment in homes for two years
  • Vacant property registration ordnances in parts of the US
  • Washington DC has a vacancy tax
  • NYC- tackles the issue of air n b with the support of both the tenant and labour (hotel workers) movement. This has had some effect and there is a limit on the number of days a property can be rented out as an air b n b.
  • Denmark- you have to rent out your property and cannot leave it empty.

Discussion on building more homes.

Andy Moseley from Scotland said that the focus of government policy is to build more homes- plans for 110,000. However, he pointed out, as did others, that this was exactly what we shouldn’t be doing in a climate emergency. This supports the RHN Charter.

Conclusion

Despite the pandemic, investment in property continues, leading to higher prices, high rents, pushing out of long-term local residents and gentrification, as well as an increase in Airbnbs and empty homes.

One of the best strategies to fight empty homes is to unite the housing and labour movements- against Airbnb, but could also be to fight for homes that workers can afford close to their work.

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