AT first glance, it adds up to a simple solution to Scotland’s housing crisis: we need 50,000 new affordable homes, but we’ve got about 34,000 old ones lying empty. Wouldn’t it make sense – given the sluggish pace of housebuilding and the limited Scottish Government funding available – to make do and mend?

Those working as part of the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership (SEHP) certainly think so. Since 2010 they’ve been plugging away to raise awareness of just how many houses and flats are lying vacant across the country while social housing waiting lists grow and private-sector rents soar.

Initially, progress was slow. Very slow indeed. In the first year just eight homes were brought back into use, and it quickly became clear there was no one-size-fits-all approach to tackling neglected properties. But thanks to the dedication and creativity of a tiny but growing army of empty homes officers, last year’s figure was an impressive 859.

Many of those workers gathered in Glasgow this week to share best practice and celebrate award-winning achievements from Orkney and Achiltibuie to Fife and Dundee. But this was no complacent, back-slapping affair, and no-one is in the empty homes game for the quick-fix glory. The work requires huge reserves of patience and diplomacy, and not just when it comes to dealing with homeowners. Council colleagues, too, may need to be persuaded that revamping and restoring empty buildings should be a priority at a time of increasing budget pressures and job cuts. A single home brought back into use might be the result of years – even decades – of dogged determination.

This isn’t just a question of meeting targets and providing much-needed housing – it’s also about tackling derelict buildings that blight communities. The case highlighted by The National’s Kirsteen Paterson last month is not atypical in its complexity: a derelict cottage with a moss-topped roof lies empty in Fochabers, surrounded by a jungle of a garden. Locals fear the greenery, now extending into the road, could cause an accident, while neighbours have been blocked from building on adjacent land until such time as a hedge and tree are cut back. The man they believe to be responsible for the property – who happens to be rural affairs spokesman for the Scottish Tories – claims he doesn’t own it.

Sir Edward Mountain insists the land belongs to the executor of his late father’s estate, and has therefore refused to get the clippers out. If it does end up in his possession he presumably won’t plead poverty over the gardening bill, but for many ordinary people who inherit homes the cost of repairs and modernisation represents a significant obstacle to bringing them back into use. Here’s where empty homes officers can come in – identifying owners, then sensitively guiding them towards support and information at the same time as colleagues prepare to wield the stick of punitive council tax rises. Some 90 per cent of the homes brought back into use since 2010 are in local authorities with empty homes officers, so their work is clearly making a big difference. Yet more than a dozen councils still don’t have them.

There are empty homes all over Scotland, from abandoned holiday bungalows in the rural isles to crumbling tenements in the big cities. There are also plenty of buildings at risk of falling into disrepair, and unless action is taken to support homeowners to maintain them that figure of 34,000 is unlikely to budge much. Prevention is always better than cure, and empty homes experts are perfectly placed to help owner-occupiers navigate the complex rules around common repairs, but funding will only stretch so far. This week’s boost for the SEHP is to be welcomed, but the new total of £400,000 per year is a drop in the ocean compared to the vast sums amassed annually by irresponsible landlords.

It takes a tenacious, persuasive and confident owner-occupier to decipher title deeds, knock on neighbours’ doors, obtain quotes for building work and ensure everyone pays their fair share. No wonder so many leaky roofs, blocked gutters and broken windows go unaddressed, and so many once-smart tenement buildings end up falling apart. Add absentee landlords to the mix and the chances of making contact – let alone reaching agreement – become even more remote.

Of course it doesn’t make financial sense to let a drip become a flood or a crack become a safety hazard, but when a property is viewed as a profit-making unit rather than a home, the primary concern is gathering rent while spending the bare minimum on maintenance. Even if a property does end up derelict, distant landlords may well keep dragging their feet. Council tax costs represent small change to those with vast portfolios, and the eyesores they’ve created may be hundreds of miles out of sight.

It may be that the Tenements Act Scotland 2006 needs to be revisited to bring the legal obligations of landlords in line with their moral ones and to ensure that people, not properties, are at the heart of the empty homes debate. In her new poem Round the Empty Houses, the Makar Jackie Kay provides a powerful reminder that abandoned dwellings are not just bricks and mortar, assets or liabilities, but places where families were once raised and precious memories made. And that their existence is not just a pity but, when so many in Scotland are homeless, a shameful state of affairs.