My friend Helen has this crazy idea and crazy ideas can be infectious so now I have it too. Next door to where she lives there are two perfectly good four bedroom homes, but nobody lives in them. One has been empty for over a year whilst the owners are building an extension and modernising the inside before they move in; the owner of the other one has had to take a job in London so he will probably sell the house but wants to see how the job works out before he puts it on the market. So Helen wondered how many properties across the country are sitting empty like this, or maybe because the owner has died and the flat or house is in limbo waiting to be sold, maybe because the place is in a bad state of repair and the owner hasn’t got the money to do it up, or for a thousand other reasons.

In December Shelter reported that over 250,000 people were living in temporary accommodation and the numbers are rising. But there are over 200,000 long term empty homes!

Helen is really bugged by the amount of families living in temporary bed and breakfast accommodation. I’ve got to agree with her — it’s a complete scandal that right here in Bristol we have more than 400 families living in B&B accommodation.

Forget images of holiday B&Bs by the seaside; for these families being in a B&B is more like Mum, Dad and the kids all living in one room. They might have a single ring to cook on or they might share kitchen and bathroom facilities with several other families. Imagine in these COVID times being locked down in one room with your entire family for weeks on end. Nowhere for the kids to run around. You’re trying to work from home and do school work surrounded by cardboard boxes of food piled up next to you, your clothes in bags and boxes, and wet laundry (that you’ve just hand-washed in the sink) spread out to dry around you.

Now imagine that just around the corner there’s an empty flat or house. Yes it needs some work to bring it up to scratch and make it nice to live in but it’s already better than the space your family is crammed in to.

So Helen and I got talking. What if we could use artificial intelligence to help bring more empty homes back into use? The first step is to get a lot of data together. Councils have the aggregated data from the Council Tax paid on empty properties, so would they let us have the individual level data from current and past records? Could we add more information on locations — demographics, average rent paid, levels of debt, average incomes, employment and unemployment data, transport links and more?

We could layer onto this information about areas where there are higher numbers of people living in temporary accommodation. AI could look for the patterns in the data on properties that have been brought back into use and this could help us predict which properties are most likely to be occupied again and whether they need extra support to make them useable. Government and local authority schemes to help bring property back into use could be targeted at the hotspots.

We could look for trends in why homes become empty in the first place so action could be taken to stop them becoming unoccupied. By intervening early, the decay that tends to happen when properties are not in use would never get a chance to set in.

Although these actions together wouldn’t be an instant solution, over a period of, say, five years we might make a significant dent in the amount of unoccupied property and so lower the number of people living in B&B accommodation.

Well it’s one thing to have an idea but it’s another entirely to turn that idea into action. Helen talked to housing charities and people who understand about homelessness; she talked to local authorities and people who know about artificial intelligence (including yours truly). There are a lot of barriers, particularly when it comes to having access to the detailed data, so this story does not (yet) have a happy ending. The technology exists to do this but we need cooperation from local authorities to share their data and the support of local and central government to target grants to specific areas and properties requiring refurbishment… and of course we’re in the middle of a major pandemic which is (rightly) taking up a lot of resources.

But imagine if we could pull it off — what a difference it would make to the lives of every person and family that had a real home instead of a temporary place to stay.

So far this is all fiction but maybe one day…

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