Stoke-on-Trent is about to sell 33 newly renovated homes for just a pound - and a 30,000 pound loan. The bold plan might revitalize the city - but don't expect to get a drink at the local pub just yet.
The corner shop and local pub have been closed since 2009 in the Cobridge area of Stoke-on-Trent. The only other communal meeting point, a community center, is also about to close. A great number of houses in the central English city have stood empty for years, attracting rubbish, social unrest and crime.
"As many older residents died, their families sold their properties to private landlords who would put anybody in," said local resident Sarah Horton, who has lived in the area for 34 years. "They don't care as long as they're getting the rent. Obviously, we get more and more anti-social behavior, more problems with neighbors, more noise at night, fighting in the streets, drinking in the streets."
As a result, few people want to buy property in the area. Row upon row of houses remain boarded up and have gradually fallen into disrepair.
But a radical one-pound per house scheme aims to change all that. Last year, the Stoke city council decided to buy 33 properties in the Cobridge area. After renovating them, they will be sold for just one pound, or around 1.20 euros ($1.63).
"Then the new owner takes a 30,000 pound loan that covers the cost of the refurbishment that we're doing," council project manager Matthew Nixon told DW as he toured one of the properties. That building is now being completely refurbished with new wiring, plumbing, bathroom and kitchen.
The 10-year loan, he said, has a competitive interest rate - "like a mortgage, but with the city council." Unlike other mortgages, there's no need for a deposit, making the arrangement ideal for first-time buyers when the average UK house now costs more than 300,000 euros.
When the scheme was first announced last year, hundreds of people expressed interest in the houses. The city council said it has carefully vetted the successful applicants to find people willing to commit to staying for the long-term, to looking after their houses as well as to contributing to the re-building of the community.
"We're quite keen to be involved with the development of what is essentially a new community," said Andrew Branscombe, who together with his partner, Anna, and their four-week-old daughter is among the lucky new owners of a one-pound house.
"It's interesting to see the reaction from the existing community," he told DW. "A lot of the people are keen for people to move back into the area, because a lot of the crime and anti-social behavior is from people who aren't from that community."
Local resident Sarah Horton is looking forward to welcoming the Branscombe family and the other 32 new home owners when the houses are ready to be moved into a few months from now.
"I want to see the area how it used to be - very community minded, neighbors getting along," she said. "Because if you're starting to care about your house, then you're going to care about the surroundings."
If the new owners later decide to move and sell their house, a percentage of any profit goes back to the city council. But the longer they stay, the smaller that percentage gets - an incentive to live in the community over the long term.
Better than new
The original plan for the area was to knock many of the abandoned houses down and build new ones. But a change of government saw the budget for that plan disappear. Many now believe this might have been a good thing, because renovating the existing housing stock should be both cheaper and better than replacing it.
"The houses probably wouldn't be the same style," said Robert Bagdi, who is overseeing all the renovation work of the one-pound houses. "If you demolish some, you then start affecting people who are already living in the locality."
The Stoke city council hopes to expand the scheme to include over 120 abandoned properties across the city. And if the "homes for one pound" scheme proves a success, it could be the model for elsewhere.
In London, the government has said that it recognizes the need to get people back into empty properties and recently announced it would spend 109 million euros to renovate empty houses so people can move in. Throughout the UK there are still more than 200,000 long-term empty houses.
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