The empty house: a window into Europe’s vacant property problem


In the final scene of Tony Gatlif’s 2012 film Indignados, which follows a young immigrant’s search for a better life in Europe, the main character ends up in a ghost estate. Unwillingly, she slams into an underground garage and her cries for help go unanswered – because no one lives in the area.

This estate really exists, it’s called Seseña and it’s located an the outskirts of Madrid – since the Eurozone crisis it has been a European symbol of the speculative real estate bubble. The developer planned 13,000 homes there, but only built half of them before the 2008 financial crisis forced him to stop. Empty buildings, swimming pools, playgrounds and streets blown by the wind created dystopian pictures spread around the globe. 

Today, Seseña has revived and is vibrant, but Europe’s vacant property problem has not gone away.

The problem of empty housing is plaguing Europe for years now. A report by the European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homeless (Feantsa) in 2016 estimated that one in six properties in Europe were vacant – equal to around 38 million empty homes. In Greece, Portugal and Bulgaria, Feantsa estimated that one in every four properties were empty.

More recently, data compiled by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2021 for selected countries show the problem remains. Hungary, Cyprus, Finland and Ireland were revealed as having Europe’s highest proportion of vacant dwellings. 

The reasons behind Europe’s empty homes are many. From owners unable to afford renovations and a rural exodus from remote towns and villages to the continued fallout from the Eurozone crisis and unchecked property speculation.

One of the major difficulties in collecting data on vacant dwellings is that there is no harmonised definition at European level. There is often confusion between structural vacancy and second homes. When this differentiation is made, the figures can be striking.

A Europe-wide problem

In Hungary, an estimated 12.3% of properties are currently unoccupied – in Budapest alone there is believed to be between 50,000 and 70,000 empty flats.

Hungary has both an aging and declining population, with many people moving from smaller rural towns to large urban areas. Of the country’s approximately four and a half million homes, just over 550,000 are unoccupied. But there is no question of a speculative bubble in Hungary: usually the owners of vacant properties simply don’t have the money to renovate them.

This rural flight is playing out across Europe. Headline-grabbing stories of deserted villages in Italy, Spain and elsewhere offer stark examples of the region’s emptying countryside communities.

The situation is similar in nearby Poland. There, as many as 11% of flats are vacant, according to national data – notably higher than the OECD estimate. Significantly, these are actually dwellings in which no one lives (the statistical office has determined this on the basis of the amount of electricity consumed). The question as to why there are so many vacant apartments in Poland is difficult to answer – such data is not collected. But here too, as in Hungary, the reason is unlikely to be property speculation – most often local authorities do not have the funds to renovate communal flats.

The actions of authorities have also led to a growing problem in France, where an estimated 8% of homes are vacant. While politicians across the spectrum argue for more houses to be built, France is in fact one of Europe’s largest builders of new homes, due in large part to favourable tax policies for developers.

Consequently, there is now a glut of empty homes across the country. The most extreme example is Vichy in central France, where 22% of houses – 4,700 of them – are empty. The city has become a dream of affordable housing, as every application for council housing is filled within two weeks. Despite this, city officials complain that they are being forced to build even more social housing. Under current legislation, French cities are obliged to have at least 20% social housing. Vichy has only 15%.

A tax solution?

For policy makers, empty homes are undesirable because they threaten the affordability of housing, especially in large cities. The introduction of a vacancy tax is becoming an increasingly popular tool among legislators.

In an effort to combat the housing shortage and soaring rents, the Austrian states of Salzburg and Styria passed laws granting local municipalities the right to tax empty flats. The tax must be taken into account when drawing up rental contracts and sales contracts. The vacancy tax applies to flats that are not used at all, as well as to flats that are only used as an additional residence (holiday homes). The law entered into force in Styria in October this year, and will come into force in Tyrol and Salzburg from January. The vacancy tax will only be levied once the municipalities have passed the relevant legislation.

Ireland, where an estimated 9% of homes are unoccupied, has taken a serious approach to tackling vacant properties. The problem was encapsulated several years ago when the government started to demolish 40 housing estates built during the boom years of the early 2000s but which still lied empty. On 14 November this year, the minister of finance announced the Vacancy Tax (VHT). The main aim of this new tax is to increase the supply of homes for rent or purchase to meet demand. The tax will be levied on residential properties that are occupied as a dwelling for less than 30 days in a 12-month period.

There is an active national campaigning charity in the UK, Action on Empty Homes, which is making recommendations to the Government on how to bring more empty homes back into use.

Chris Bailey, the charity’s national campaign manager, said in November: “After more than a decade of intense housing crisis, it is shocking that long-term empty homes in England have risen to 257,331 – another 20,000 more wasted voids, while almost 100,000 families are trapped in temporary accommodation, costing the nation more than £1.5 billion a year.”

Recent research by the charity found that one in three homes in London’s financial centre is empty, with many left to gain value in the housing market.

A novel project in Brussels

In 2019 Pepijn Kennis, a member of the Brussels regional parliament and spokesperson for the Agora citizens’ movement, together with a hundred volunteers and activists set up an assembly of 89 randomly selected citizens to discuss the challenges of local politics. A year later the assembly presented a citizens’ resolution on housing in Brussels (it went to the regional parliament). Citizens made several proposals on how to bring abandoned flats and buildings back to life.

It happens that citizens are quicker to take things into their own hands. In 2019, several activist associations created a new Brussels and totally fictional municipality, the so-called 20th ‘Saint-Vide-Leegbeek’ municipality. On the municipality’s website you can follow the political life of its inhabitants and get daily news. But the municipality is unique : it consists of 6.5 million m² of empty residential buildings (‘leeg’ means empty in Dutch). The associations have voluntarily collected data on the plots of land on which the flats and buildings are located in order to estimate which of them are empty. The aim is to raise awareness of this phenomenon and the huge housing potential.

Still, solving the vacant property problem in Brussels is likely to be an uphill struggle. As Kennis observes: “For developers, it is more interesting to acquire dwellings and buildings by leaving them empty, than to install tenants, which are often difficult to evict, and often require heavy investments. So they keep the houses, or buildings, empty while waiting for the land to increase in value so that they can connect the land for larger construction projects. There is also the problem of people who inherit houses but cannot afford to renovate them to put them back on the rental market.”