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14 August 2014

Live in guardians: one radical solution to the UK’s housing problem

Property guardianship emerged in the Netherlands in the 1990s, seen as a way of dealing with the large numbers of squatters occupying empty Dutch buildings. 

By Barbara Speed

Not many people can afford to live in a 10,000-square-foot property in the heart of London like Robin – but actually, she can’t afford to, either, which is why she became a property guardian.” So began a recent Sky News report, the latest in a series of upbeat features on property guardianship, the novel practice of recruiting people to live in empty commercial or residential buildings for a fee. But is it as good as it sounds?

It first emerged in the Netherlands in the 1990s. At the time, squatters were occupying empty Dutch buildings in large numbers and had gained legal status through a ruling stating that owners could evict them through the courts only. Property guardianship was seen as a way of preventing this problem.

In the past five years the practice has been adopted in the UK, too. And, in a country that has the apparently paradoxical combination of a homelessness problem and an empty-building problem, it doesn’t sound like a bad idea. According to local council data, there were 635,137 empty residential properties in England in 2013. Almost a third of these had been lying empty for more than six months.

For the building’s owners, it’s a good deal: leaving a building empty can reduce its value by up to 5 per cent, and installing security can cost £6,000 a month. For the property guardians, it’s not too bad an arrangement, either, as they pay between 30 and 60 per cent of standard market rate. But what they pay isn’t rent, and they are not technically tenants – their fees go to an agency, not to the landowner, in exchange for keeping the guardians in check.

Arthur Duke, managing director of the agency Live-in Guardians, says most of his customers are aged between 25 and 35. “About 80 per cent are saving for a deposit, and the other 20 per cent are fed up with expensive rents.” Most stay with the company for about six to nine months; some stay in one property but others move through several. When a building is needed by its owners, the guardians are offered other properties.

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Guardians have to contend with a fair few rules. These include a ban on pets, parties, and smoking – and on leaving the property for more than 24 hours without permission. Until recently, agencies also had clauses in their contracts forbidding guardians from speaking to the press; as far as I can tell, this no longer applies.

The rules highlight the big catch with property guardianship: even its strongest advocate would admit that the exchange is, essentially, reduced rent (sorry, “fees”) in return for reduced rights. Property guardians aren’t tenants; they are “licensees”. In human-speak, this means they are given the right to use the building but the building’s owner doesn’t take on landlord responsibilities. This legal compromise was constructed precisely to allow such schemes to operate: agencies need to be able to boot out the tenants when a building is due to be reoccupied, sold or demolished.

The facts are more complicated. Giles Peaker, a property lawyer, was approached in 2012 by a UK guardian who had been locked out of a property after being given only two weeks’ notice by telephone. Her belongings, which were still inside the property, then went missing. She sued the company for unlawful eviction and received a substantial payout. (One of the conditions of the settlement was that no one could name the agency.)

In court, Peaker argued that the Eviction Act 1977 applies to guardians. That gives them the right to at least four weeks’ notice before being asked to leave. Despite this, several property guardian agencies maintain a two-week eviction policy.

In the Netherlands, guardian agencies have faced mounting criticism. In 2009 the Dutch film-maker Abel Heijkamp set up the campaign group the “Union of Precarious Renters” to improve legal protection and push for an end to property guardianship. His website is almost entirely in Dutch, but this has not deterred guardians in the UK from contacting him. “Policymakers only see the stories where people live in Westminster palaces – they ignore the fact that it’s creating guardians without rights or security,” Heijkamp says. “In London, where the rents are ridiculously high, people see it as a solution. But they should protect the rights of citizens, not of private enterprises.”

Yet Giles Peaker believes guardianship could still be a viable, and effective, housing option. “Like so many things, it’s an arrangement that can work – if it’s done properly between consenting adults.” 

A longer version of this article can be found on the NS’s new sister site

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