Why Can't We Just Give Empty Houses to Homeless People?

June 24th 2017

London's Grenfell Tower once stood 24 stories tall and contained 120 multi-occupancy apartments. It's completely uninhabitable today.

The tragic June 14 fire not only left a staggering 79 confirmed fatalitiesa number expected to rise—it also left surviving residents homeless. In the wake of the fire, U.K. Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn called for a unique approach to house the displaced residents: expropriating the many empty properties that are dotted across London.

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As The Standard reported, Corbyn said, "...properties must be found, requisitioned if necessary, in order to make sure those residents do get rehoused locally."

He also tied the displaced residents of Grenfall Tower to the larger problem of homelessness in the city and added, "It cannot be acceptable that in London you have luxury buildings and luxury flats kept as land banking for the future while the homeless and the poor look for somewhere to live."

Corbyn's calls were answered. 

Just days after his comments, The Guardian reported that 68 flats in a luxury apartment complex located mile and a half away from Grenfall Tower would be available for residents displaced by the fire. Families will be be able to take up permanent residence in July and August in the Kensington Row complex, where the starting price of homes sits at $1.6 million. 

Could the idea work in the U.S.?

The proposal has been raised in the U.S. as well.  In the wake of the foreclosure crisis of 2008, some floated the idea of using the new glut of vacant homes to house the homeless. Amnesty International's Tanuka Loha suggested declaring housing a human right in 2011— framing the proposition within the ongoing spate of foreclosures.

Since 2007, banks have foreclosed around eight million homes. It is estimated that another eight to ten million homes will be foreclosed before the financial crisis is over.  This approach to resolving one part of the financial crisis means many, many families are living without adequate and secure housing.  In addition, approximately 3.5 million people in the U.S. are homeless, many of them veterans.  It is worth noting that, at the same time, there are 18.5 million vacant homes in the country.

Gus Kroll, a street level advocacy worker based in Portland, Ore., told ATTN: that he believes the country could find housing for the homeless by using vacant properties.

"I don't see any reason why it couldn't," Kroll said. "I don't see any reason why any house should sit fallow when there are folks ready to take care of them."

Paul Alexander, a Seattle-based volunteer with the nonprofit Standup for Kids, echoed his point. 

"The US census bureau estimate is something like 17k vacant housing units," Alexander told ATTN:. "So, yeah, there's definitely room for these people to be housed."

But it's not so simple. 

But as Amanda Erickson of Atlantic Cities pointed out in 2012, that's easier said than done.

A large chunk of the current vacant housing stock is made up of homes that were foreclosed upon, meaning they're now owned by banks. Banks, of course, don't want to hang onto vacant properties any longer than necessary lest they get stuck with additional property tax bills, and it's tough to act as a landlord for thousands of homes across the county.

While some banks have, on occasion, donated foreclosed land to municipalities— as Bank of America did in Cleveland in 2011 and JP Morgan Chase has across the country— those gifts usually come after after the banks have bulldozed the properties on site. 

Plus there's the possibility that seizing private property for housing the destitute might face constitutional hurdles based on the Fifth Amendment's "Takings clause" which states that "private property shall not be taken for a public use, without just compensation."

So while it's possible private property could be taken through eminent domain to provide housing, the just compensation would have to be offered and accepted— a process that can take months. 

And housing is often an immediate need.  

"We're obviously much more limited here vs the UK in terms of federal power with regards to housing," Alexander said.

However, he suggested that there could be a way for municipalities to enter into agreements with private property owners to allow their vacant properties to be used for emergency housing.

"Doing stuff like building affordable housing is necessary if we want to address the housing crisis in Seattle but there are already plenty of unused units the city can purchase or rent on behalf of the homeless in order to house them immediately."

Julie Ann Johnson, a former client services specialist at a men's shelter in Austin, Tex., told ATTN: she thinks emergency housing would be a useful first step— but that housing is only the beginning.

"I think a huge amount of [the homeless] could succeed if they had help," Johnson said.

She explained that the psychological toll of being homeless can lead to a sense of desperation and exacerbate existing substance abuse problems— issues which won't be solved simply by finding housing.

"Guys would commit crimes so they could go to prison just to get medical treatment," Johnson said.

"I know this has to cost more than housing them."

Share your opinion

Do you think vacant homes should be provided as housing for the homeless?

No 23%Yes 78%