Islands tackling empty homes crisis - Donna Smith

Empty and derelict homes add a sense of deprivation to rural and island communities, and that is certainly true for the distinct island communities of the Outer Hebrides.

They can be challenging properties to deal with due to complex, varying circumstances such as the death of an owner, owners not being able to afford to restore a property, and owners going into care.

The Western Isles Council has been very active in empty homes work and through advice and support for owners, the local empty homes officer Murdo Macleod has helped bring 185 empty homes back into use across the region since he started in his role in 2018.

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Despite the fantastic work of the council, it is estimated that there are still approximately 500 empty homes across the region and due to limited resources, the council are not in the position to purchase empty homes outright and restore them to a habitable state.

TIG restored an empty home in the Outer Hebrides and made it available via the rent-to-buy schemeTIG restored an empty home in the Outer Hebrides and made it available via the rent-to-buy scheme
TIG restored an empty home in the Outer Hebrides and made it available via the rent-to-buy scheme

Therefore, the council asked Tighean Innse Gall (TIG), a community housing development service, to look at the problem of complex empty homes and come up with a proposed solution.

At this point we had been trialling our rent-to-buy model, which is a low-cost pathway to home ownership based on a five-year tenancy with an option to buy at an agreed price.

After being approached by the council, we decided to apply the rent-to-buy model to an empty home typical of the kind that you would find in the Outer Hebrides. The home had been on the open market for years and there had been minimal – if any – interest from potential buyers.

The owner had passed away and it took some time to establish who had inherited it. Despite delays due to Covid and the challenges typical of bringing empty homes back into use, the trial had an excellent outcome. A young professional who had been looking for a property for a number of years without success moved into the property, which is located in an area close to her family.

The success of the trial led to a proposal to utilise rent-to-buy and other forms of affordable housing, such as mid-market rent, to bring a group of empty homes back into use across the islands.

We are now proud to be launching a two-year partnership project with the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership to deliver this proposal. It will be the first partnership of its kind for Scotland’s rural and island communities.

The project will focus on our most rural communities that generally don’t see any other form of affordable housing. We are hoping it will attract new people to these regions, particularly families and young people, as well as providing housing options for local people.

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Our feasibility studies will examine approximately 20 empty homes and look at many factors, from the cost of refurbishment and local demand for housing to building regulations and the availability of local utilities.

Once the studies are complete, we will determine which properties would make the most logical investments from the perspective of both the restoration process and housing. We aim to bring back approximately 12 empty homes across the islands.

To ensure the project continues into years two, three, four, five and beyond, enabling us to tackle the ongoing issue with empty homes in the Islands a number of properties will be refurbished to be sold on the open market. Any surpluses from the sale of these properties will be recycled to cover ongoing staff costs to continue the project in the longer term. TIG will also apply our rural housing burden to prevent these properties from being used in the tourism sector or sold on at a profit.

We look forward to working closely with the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership and hope that this project will provide a role model for using empty homes to help revitalise rural communities, that will inspire other rural and island communities across Scotland.

Donna Smith, Chief Executive Officer, Tighean Innse Gall (TIG) On behalf of the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership

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