Councils should sell or let over million empty homes at a discounted rate to help reclaim for families in need, a charity says.
Empty Homes has urged the government to pressure local authorities to create more affordable homes.
Two million families need a home and 100,000 more new builds are required each year, statistics show.
England housing minister Grant Shapps said progress was being made on the issue.
As Empty Homes launched a week-long awareness campaign, its chief executive David Ireland said Britain’s pressing housing shortage should be a government “priority”.
In Scotland, local councils can access information on empty homes and make direct contact with owners, under powers gained in October. This is intended as a first step to bringing empty homes back into use.
In Wales, local authorities have powers to make empty houses available to those in need of homes. Conway council is the latest local authority looking to make use of these powers.
In a letter for publication in newspapers, Mr Ireland wrote: “There are tens of thousands of houses lying empty in areas where big regeneration schemes have failed.
“These range from entirely empty council estates in London, and whole streets of empty housing in cities in the north of England, to individual redundant school caretakers’ and park keepers’ houses.”
The government has invested £150m to tackle some of the worst concentrations of empty housing in England.
Mr Shapps said 22,000 homes had been brought back into use this year and there had been a rise in the number of new homes built.
He told the BBC: “I think there is plenty more to be done. The figures are starting to show a reduction in the number of empty homes, which is great.
“We have just announced £150m as an empty homes fund, to allow local communities to get some of those homes back into use… so we are starting to make progress.”
Mr Ireland said many “empties” were in need of work and would not make a sufficient return for developers to buy them in current market conditions.
“The government grants won’t be enough to pay for renovating all of them,” he said.
“However, many of them could make fantastic homes for people who are prepared to do some work on them themselves.
“I am now calling on councils to help by disposing of their own abandoned housing at discounted prices directly to people to renovate and live in as their sole home.”
He also urged the government to allow councils to charge higher council tax on long-term empty homes and for the revenue generated to be reinvested in bringing more empty homes into use.
Nicola Hughes, from housing and homeless charity Shelter, said her organisation was supporting the Empty Homes campaign.
“We have this problem at the moment with homelessness really rising and millions of people finding out that they are priced out of the housing market.
“So it’s a real scandal that at the same time we see properties standing empty across the country, sometimes for a long time and sometimes in a really bad state of repair.
“So what we can do is try and bring those empty homes back into use and that can make a huge difference to people who are just desperate for a roof over their heads.”
In October, a different charity said older people should be encouraged to move into smaller homes to help tackle the housing shortage.
The Intergenerational Foundation said there should be tax breaks to encourage downsizing and help free up some of the estimated 25 million unused bedrooms in England.
More than half of over-65s are in homes with two or more spare bedrooms, which could be used by families, its report based on government figures said.
But ministers dismissed the proposal, saying they did not agree that people should be “taxed or bullied out of their homes”.