This isn’t something I’ve only just noticed. It’s been around a while. It’s called Buy To Leave Empty, and for tenants in buildings like Dovecot Towers it’s the root cause of yet another fresh hell.
The property boom bought with it not just saturation low-rise newbuilds, but other forms of development. Most cities have their eye-catching architect’s masturbation fantasy: a phallic symbol, thrusting into the clouds. Then there are those slightly-out-of-town canal side/dockside dreamscape buildings, which - at the time of their inception - seemed like an excellent idea.
These larger, better fitted-out ‘apartments’ (we’ve reached the level of value where you must no longer say flats) were marketed as luxurious, but - dislocated from the trappings and requirements of a happy life, like ordinary shops and neighbourhood pubs - they’ve been shunned. They are often sited close to drive-in theme bars, multiplex cinemas, outlet stores and US style ‘diners.’ Better paid workers passing through on short term corporate contracts are usually the only inhabitants.
Many buildings, medium, plain and grand alike, are left deliberately empty. If you’ve ever walked past a building and counted how many houselights are switched on of a Monday at nine pm, you might think the occupants are crazy, decadent and debauched socialites, having too much fun. Some flats might still be let at unrealistic prices, and are waiting for deluded buy-to-let chancers to see sense and drop the asking price.
Elsewhere, investors have found caring for pesky residents to be a major pain, so magnates who live on the other side of the world don’t bother finding renters to rattle around in their investment. Sensible owners make a slower buck on the equity, not by ramping up the rents. They snap up bargains, hold tight and yet still enjoy the many generous tax advantages.
In Dovecot Towers, many overseas owners were domiciled in Hong Kong. I’m noticing less Chinese occupants round here now: I think the owners previously let to their children and other relatives, but now prefer a simple life, allowing their investment to stand empty. I’d should welcome the quiet, and an end to other annoyances great and small, but empty flats distort the nature of a neighbourhood, encouraging a block to seem hollow, even dead.
If these ‘apartments’ were released onto an already flooded market, rents would plummet to a reasonable level. Just imagine having so much money you can snap up a massive portfolio of mortgage-free property to mothball until the crisis ends. This means that whenever you notice an empty building, it’s possible that someone somewhere is making millions. You might think: that’s capitalism, and fair play to them. It’s just that, while these concrete embodiments of a deflated property bubble disdainfully flaunt their eventual worth, corridors are left in desolation, deathly quiet, cold and empty.
There is another side to calmly sitting out the crunch/recession/whatever, accumulating property for the eventual equity to accrue. Way down below, in the semi-landscaped garden, homeless men and women are sleeping in the shrubbery.