Around the Neighbourhood – Nobody’s Home

By Ellen Greenberg

In a small, fortunate-person’s way, I’m living with one of the (alleged) causes of London’s housing crisis.  Dubbed “Buy-to-Leave,” empty homes in well-to-do neighbourhoods are a feature of the very complex state of the city’s residential sector.  My home is one of ten in a modern mews. Unlike the classic mews arrangement which features updated former stables fronting on mid-block lanes, mine comprises nine attached three-story units built around a courtyard in the mid-80’s, plus one detached unit in the back.  I’m not certain of the property’s history, but I suspect it is related to the adjacent historic military barracks now at the start of a lengthy redevelopment process.

Holland Park mews
A Classic Mews Configuration in Holland Park (not illustrating this post’s main theme!)

When I decided to live here, I hoped for neighbourly interaction.  It didn’t take long to realise that I had far fewer neighbours than expected. Three of the units were empty.  Since that discovery, one seasonal resident has appeared, the back unit was emptied of its renters so it could be rebuilt and enlarged, and number 5 (pictured above, and stubbornly vacant) was burglarized.  Just yesterday I encountered people emerging from number 7 for the very first time, and learned that they are here for a two week stay.  So while the neighbours I have are reasonably friendly, the total number is disappointing. I count 12 year-round residents in 10 units, each of which I believe has at least two bedrooms.

If I had a car it would be easy to find on-street parking in my neighbourhood. It would be harder to find street-level activity or upper floor night-time lights on at the newer apartment buildings around the corner. It’s a disappointingly quiet place (except for when there’s cricket on, as it is this weekend).

empty finchley
It’s hard to illustrate MOSTLY EMPTY, but this nearby apartment at dusk hints at the situation

In a February article, the Financial Times reported that

Kensington and Chelsea’s Conservative council, for example, has used 2011 Census data to find 9,169 flats and houses classified as vacant — 10.5 per cent of the borough’s total housing stock. The same authority’s 2012 council tax returns show 10,564 empty homes, which is 12.1 per cent of the stock.

My own experience makes me suspect that the 12.1 per cent estimate is on the low side.

The article goes on to quote a London broker describing Buy to Leave as “endemic in prime central London and the new-build sector,” and calling it “a grave issue in a city where many people are looking for somewhere to live.”

Last year The Guardian published a story on the effects of empty units on local businesses, highlighting restaurant closures in upscale locations and empty streets in super-posh Chelsea, Belgravia and Mayfair.  We’ve eaten out in those areas a few times. While it hasn’t been hard to find places open for business, there is a creepy inactivity on many streets lined with well cared-for stately houses, which feel more like stage set than neighbourhood.

There’s lots of debate about the impact of Buy-to-Leave on the residential sector as a whole.  Its widely agreed to be less than the consequences of derelict empty properties whose owners can’t afford to rehabilitate them for sale or rental, and the number of distressed properties seems to be acknowledged to be considerably higher than the number of carefully-tended properties with largely-absent owners. Whatever the scale of actual impact on housing supply, Buy to Leave is in the headlines.  In the run-up to last month’s election, the Financial Times described buy-to-leave as being seen by the  mayoral front-runners as “in some way damaging.” This seems inarguable, since “in some way” leaves room for quite a lot of interpretation.    My suspicion is that empty homes in the capital’s most desirable neighbourhoods are an unescapable consequence of London’s status as a (or perhaps The) global capital of both finance and culture. While it might be tempting to try to eliminate the empty homes problem, it’s hard to believe that any mayor would be willing to trade off the combination of stability and allure that make London a place people want to park their money, and occasionally themselves.

(If you’re readers wondering how the upcoming Brexit vote might influence the global appeal of London as a place to invest in real estate, I can can assure you you’re not alone.)

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