Priced-out Londoners turn to empty homes
London -- London is one of the most expensive places to live on the planet but it is also home to tens of thousands of empty properties -- and some people are taking matters into their own hands.
Squatters have taken over buildings in some of the most upmarket areas of London, including most recently on the famous Leicester Square, where a group of artists set up a home in a disused office block.
Those seeking a more conventional route have struck short-term residential lets with the owners of prime business space which they have struggled to rent out because of the recession.
"We’re a bit spoilt for choice when it comes to properties. In central London there’s a plethora of prime real estate that’s simply going to waste," said Dan Simon, whose squatter movement took over the Leicester Square block.
His artistic group, called The Oubliettes, is making a habit of occupying top London buildings, where they show their work and hold art classes. Previous ‘homes’ include the former Mexican embassy in the plush Mayfair district.
Their latest project is an unimpressive office block in a highly impressive location — right next door to the Odeon West End cinema which regularly hosts glamorous red carpet movie premieres.
Simon said "financial constraints" were a big motivation for their movement but insists their presence benefits landlords because empty buildings can attract crime and fall into a state of disrepair.
Across the River Thames in the up-and-coming district of Denmark Hill, David Ireland, chief executive of campaign group Empty Homes Agency, made the same point as he stood outside a row of 18 boarded-up homes in a single street.
"Things like this attract petty crime and attract a feeling of the area in decline," he told AFP.
Ireland said the houses, some of which have been empty for years, could be used for new homes.
"The UK is a country which has got huge housing need and a lot of need for new homes, and yet we’ve got a million that could be used if only the attention was paid to them instead of always looking at new homes," he said.
Rents in London are among the highest in the world, with a one-bedroom flat in the city centre costing at least 300 pounds (500 dollars, 330 euros) a week.
The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, wants to deliver 50,000 more affordable homes across the capital by 2011, and empty homes are part of this strategy.
His housing blueprint published in May puts the number of long-term empty properties in London at about 35,000, and the mayor has vowed to invest 60 million pounds by 2011 to bring them back into use.
Back in Denmark Hill, the hospital trust that owns 12 of the empty houses says they are being sold, and officials elsewhere say many of the homes listed as empty are simply awaiting sale — a process extended by the housing slump.
For those homes left to languish, local councils have a variety of means to bring them back into use, ranging from providing grants to redevelop them to compulsory purchase orders.
Philippa Roe, the councillor with responsibility for housing in Westminster, which includes Leicester Square, said her local authority is trying to "look creatively" at the problem — including using so-called property ‘guardians."
Unable to rent out one of its office blocks in the central Soho district, the council turned to an association that found short-term tenants willing to live there for minimal rent — a win-win solution for both sides.