I can't even afford to be a property guardian

Property guardianships, where tenants trade rights for lower rent, look an attractive alternative. But London's property market means even they are increasingly out of reach, writes Maya Oppenheim. 

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As a 23-year-old, the housing market in London can feel like an impenetrable fortress. Confronted with sky-high rents, it quickly becomes a hostile and daunting place. And in a city where garden sheds are sold as de facto homes for £70,000 and hundreds queue to view matchbox rooms, one naturally becomes desperate.

For this reason, property guardianship felt like a sensible option for me to explore. As a property guardian, you pay a third of the market rate to occupy a temporarily empty property and safeguard it from damage. Nevertheless, there is a catch. Property guardians are not tenants so have no tenancy rights. As a result, guardians often live in poor conditions because companies do not have to follow the same legal frameworks as landlords. What’s more, they can be fined for trivial violations, banned from having visitors and evicted with just days of notice. On top of this, the guardian company can enter the property at anytime without warning. In essence, property guardians relinquish their rights for cheap rent.

This was something I was begrudgingly willing to do. But the more property guardianships I looked for in London, the more I realised that the affordability factor was fast diminishing. For a single person in a central London location, rents were hitting £600 a month. This is an extortionate amount, whatever the circumstances. But when you consider that you’re giving up your rights as a tenant to inhabit what might be a derelict, unfurnished pub or an old hospital or a discarded estate or office block, it suddenly seems pointedly more extortionate. It goes without saying that without the allure of cut-rate rent, the incentive for becoming a property guardian goes.

After ringing round half a dozen property guardian companies and being continually shocked at the difference between the high prices quoted over the phone and those advertised on the website, I tried Properties of London. “You’re not the only one clever enough to have had this idea,” he warned. “Everyone’s onto guardianships now. We have 500 applicants a week so you better be willing to wait. We get 200 people for a Zone 1 London viewing”. While, there are still some bargain guardianships to be had, property prices in central London locations have risen steeply. In the midst of a chronic housing shortage, it seems that competition is fierce in all realms of the rental sector. In turn, the rising price of property guardianships has become symptomatic of our wider housing crisis.

Eva Robson*, a 29-year-old who works in film, has experienced the hike in prices first hand. Having spent six years as a property guardian in London, she has recently been priced out. “Each year, the price would go up. When I first started, I was paying £300 a month but in my last place, I was paying £415 a month”. In the end, Robson left the property because it was being reclaimed. “But when I started looking for new guardianships, I found all of their prices had gone up and they had less properties available so I left”.

“One of the properties I looked at was £180 a week for a central London location. Some were a bit more or less than that”, Robson tells me. “£180 is a lot of money. It’s not worth it for an unfurnished derelict property. I don’t know how they were renting them out but people were still taking them”. And Robson is not wrong. In recent years, the property guardian industry has boomed. Since 2008, it has grown by 30 per cent in London, while the market leader, Camelot, grew by 39 per cent in 2014 alone.

When you enter into a property guardianship, you surrender your rights as a tenant. Your contract will even read: “This is not a tenancy”. In trading affordability for forfeiting tenancy rights, property guardianships put a price tag on basic rights that we should all be entitled to. What’s more, the precarious nature of guardianships, mean they are unsuitable for most people. This is especially true for families, who require local, secure properties. After all, it is difficult to feel truly at home in a place where you can be fined for being untidy or kicked out with no warning. Moreover, it is difficult to invest in a local community and maintain a stable education for your children if you are constantly being relocated from one guardianship to the next. While, a nomadic existence of stopgap contracts in shared guardianships with troupes of strangers might be manageable for a 20 something year old, it doesn’t work for a family.

This raises the question of who exactly is living in these guardianships? Despite the fact that property guardian websites are flooded with shiny images of “creatives” and “young professionals”, research shows that the demographic is considerably wider. Migrant workers, care and medical workers, and administrative workers make up a significant chunk of the guardian population.

The Guardian industry might portray itself as offering creative, affordable resolutions to the housing crisis, but when it comes down to it, their principal aim is to provide a security service to generate profit. Cheap rent, which isn’t even that cheap anymore, is just an arbitrary, unintentional side effect. In turn, guardianships have – literally - profited from the housing shortage that pervades Britain.

Talking to Shelter, Roger Harding, the director of communications, policy and campaigns said: “The fact that people are resorting to the unstable, unsuitable and often unsafe option of property guardianship is yet another symptom of London's chronic affordability crisis. With home ownership all but a distant dream, thousands of Londoners are stuck paying sky high rents to private landlords or living with their parents, so it's no wonder many are trying to find alternative solutions”.

The surge in the price of property guardians reflects trends in the wider rental sector. Private renting has doubled in the last decade, with nine million people now renting from private landlords in the UK. At the same time, prices have rocketed. Put it like this if food prices had risen at the same speed as house prices in the last 40 years, a chicken would now cost £51.81. In the midst of a housing crisis, it has become normal for people to spend well over half of their income on housing; while food, warmth and clothing comes second. This is set to continue, with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation predicting that private rents will have risen by more than twice as much as incomes by 2040 and the majority of renters in England will be living in poverty. With social housing lists swelling, this ticking time bomb hangs over us like a dark cloud.

While, I might not be able to afford to be a property guardian in London, I’m lucky enough to be able to live at home for now. The real victims of London’s housing crisis are the families hit by the “bedroom tax” or the housing benefit cap or the four in ten young people who become homeless because their parents will no longer put them up. After all, who knows what will happen to them once housing benefit for unemployed 18-21 year-olds is cut? As London continues to exile its inhabitants with astronomical rents, people are being forced to go to desperate lengths to stay in the capital.

 

 

*Robson’s name has been changed to protect her identity.