But National Residential Landlords Association says local councils taking possession of unused properties is much trickier to achieve than it sounds and warns many may not be habitable.
Action on Empty Homes is calling on local councils to take possession of vacant properties and offer them to deserving health workers.
While many NHS staff are desperate for accommodation near work, the national campaigning charity points to Government data which shows there are 226,000 long-term empty homes in England, two-thirds of them near hospitals.
Nearly one in 20 homes in the City of London are vacant, while just down the road, Barts Hospital has one of the highest numbers of deaths from Coronavirus.
The charity says councils should ask homeowners and landlords to volunteer their second or empty properties so essential workers can use them.
Action on Empty Homes director, Will McMahon, says: “Long-term empty homes which are immediately suitable for use should be brought into use. This can easily be achieved because local authorities know where these houses are and who owns them as this information is collected for council tax purposes.”
Campaigns manager Chris Bailey adds: “Current powers are weak and time consuming, as well as only being applicable to those wilfully neglecting property and allowing it to fall into disrepair (Empty Dwelling Management Orders, which would not operate quickly enough to be useful in these circumstances).
“What we propose would be a much more powerful and effective temporary measure that would also make more sense in terms of fairness and consistency for landlords – as well as offering funding to offset potential costs.”
While councils can reclaim long-term empty properties as a last resort, it suggests the Government should give them powers to take possession more urgently, as well as provide funding to cover cleaning and insurance costs and utility safety checks. It could also consider paying a fair rent to owners.
The charity points to recent action in Lowestoft where East Suffolk Council transformed an empty sheltered housing property into eight flats in just seven days to help vulnerable people during the crisis.
However, Gavin Dick, local authority policy officer at the National Residential Landlords Association, says trying to access these properties can sometimes be legally or practically difficult.
“Houses can be empty because people are working away from home for long periods, or they’re going through a tricky divorce or probate.
Someone might not have the money to bring it up to standard, and the boiler might not work, which is no good for housing NHS staff,” he tells LandlordZONE.
The letting-agency backed NHS Homes website, which provides NHS workers or healthcare professionals with free temporary homes, lists 2,500 properties and is now receiving requests from more than 280 hospitals across the country.