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The UK's 'Property Guardians' Live in a World of Constant Anxiety

It's like squatting, but you have to pay.

Philip Kleinfeld

The pub Charlie lived in (photo by Nicholas Pomeroy)

"There were hypodermic needles in the fireplace and on the carpets, rats in the basement, the walls were pushed through and copper piping had been ripped out so it leaked whenever it rained."

Charlie Fegan, a 24-year-old graduate from Goldsmiths, is describing life on the fringes of London's housing crisis. For the last two years he has been living as a property guardian; paying for the privilege of sleeping in the capital's empty buildings as a security guard by another name.

As rents in the city soar, more and more people are turning to property guardianship as an answer to their individual crises. In the last four years the number of agencies in the UK has increased by between 40 and 50 percent, with big multi-national firms like Camelot and Ad Hoc and smaller "social" businesses like Dot Dot Dot all in operation.

On the face of it, it seems like a good idea. Guardian agencies approach landlords with empty buildings and offer to fill them with people. Because it's temporary, lasting until a long-term use is found for the building, the guardians pay cheap rent. And because the agency gets money from the guardians, they can offer a cheap service to the landlord. It's sold as a win-win scenario. Cheap rent for the tenants, more or less free security for the landlords, and money for the agencies for doing very little.

But there's a catch. The guardians are not in fact tenants, they are "licensees" and they sign contracts to occupy buildings without any of the legal rights a regular short hold tenant is entitled to. The result is a group of companies that ban visitors, enter properties without warning, levy fines for minor violations, arbitrarily confiscate deposits and dish out evictions at ridiculously short notice.

"Being a guardian means living in a constant state of anxiety," Charlie tells me from a large three-storey office he's living in, a stone's throw from Tower Bridge. "You have no rights at all. You're essentially paying to be a squatter."

A plaque marking the time Her Majesty opened the building hangs on the wall at the entrance to Charlie's current home. It's hard to imagine she was ever here. Across three floors, lights flicker on and off over vast unfurnished rooms. A makeshift kitchen with two ovens and a single washing machine has been set up in the basement for 23 people to use.

But compared to what Charlie is used to, this is luxury. Before moving to Tower Bridge he was living in an old pub in Dalston that had been run down by squatters before the landlord hired a company called Live-in Guardians, the brainchild of former lawyer Arthur Duke, to look after the building. It's not uncommon to hear guardians complain about the condition of the places they are put in, but this place was beyond the pale.

"I was desperate and glad to have a roof over my head but I can't describe how bad it was," Charlie says. "We had no gas and none of the overhead lights worked. In my bedroom there was a hole through the window. The property owners were redeveloping the building into multi-storeyed flats and were doing ground testing while we lived there. Builders were there from nine to five with huge jackhammers. It was like living in a mine. All day long the house would shake."

(Photo courtesy of Charlie)

Live-in Guardians insist every property is looked over and made habitable before guardians move in. But, according to Charlie, the building was "extremely unsafe".

"One day I arrived at the pub after a call from my house mate Rowan to find the power had gone off," Charlie says. "When I went down into the basement there was thick smoke and all the electrics were on fire. There were no smoke alarms in the building and the fire brigade said that if we were upstairs sleeping they'd be pulling out dead bodies. These guys are evil and the schemes they offer are a ticking time bomb. It's not long until somebody is hurt or gets killed."

Charlie's story doesn't end there. In the contracts most guardians sign, they are told they will have two weeks to pack up their lives and leave when the landlord takes back possession of the building. But in his case even this narrow time-frame seems to have meant nothing. A few months after the Tower Bridge property was opened, Live-in Guardians asked everyone inside to leave with just 48 hours notice.

"Last Friday we were told we had two days to get out," Charlie says, visibly exhausted. "The emotional and psychological impact of feeling so precarious is unbearable. It's draining, constantly looking out the window, waiting to be evicted."

(Photo author's own)

When I contacted Arthur Duke, Live-in Guardians CEO, I was offered a very different version of events to the one Charlie described. I was told an electrician had rewired the pub and certified it as safe before the guardians moved in. I was told a small electrical fire had been caused by a storm and a resultant flood. And I was told a wireless radio linked smoke alarm had alerted the guardians to the problem.

"The safety of our Guardians is paramount and we take the matter very seriously," Duke said. "We have a Property Inspector who has 30 years' experience in the London Fire Brigade who undertakes surprise inspections at all our properties."

But these are claims Charlie and all his housemates' dispute. They say there was no fire alarm or storm, just a squalid building offered to "desperate" guardians.

Inside a guarded property (Photo author's own)

Whatever way you look at it, Charlie's experience is a stark contrast to the way property guardianship is usually presented in the media as some kind of bourgeois lifestyle decision; an adventure for those with an appetite for urban shabbiness. In the companies' promotional material, rather than shots of decaying pubs and dilapidated office blocks occupied by poor people, you get a slide-show of kooky locations, exposed brick and fixed-gear bikes, as if living in a guardian scheme is like going to an artisan coffee shop. But Charlie's story is by no means peculiar, and the quality of the accommodation is far from the only problem.

Holly Cozens, a 31-year-old from Brighton was living with Camelot - the largest guardian agency in the market - in an old convent to save up money to rent on the private market.

"From my experience and from the other people that lived there, the fundamental problem was that they never give their deposits back to anyone," she told me over the phone. "The other problem was that they can chuck you out for anything. Somebody I knew had an ashtray in the house. They hadn't smoked inside but they kept the ashtray in their room. When Camelot saw it they asked him to leave. There was no chance to talk to them or discuss anything, you just had to go. Nor would they fix any of the things that would break. When one of the showers stopped working, we had 20 people all using the same one. Everybody would be emailing them but it would take them ages to get back."

Mike Goldsmith, Camelot's Chief Operating Officer, denies the company confiscates deposits arbitrarily. "Unless there is a legitimate reason to make a deduction Camelot will always re-pay guardian deposits," he told me. "We are also in the process of putting together an SLA [Service-Level Agreement] which will give targeted times to react to issues such as broken showers."

A "ghost-mansion" in London (Photo by Simon Childs)

While Camelot may be improving as company, nobody seems to be sure whether core aspects of property guardianship are even legal. Guardian agencies remain convinced that by distinguishing between tenancy and licence they are doing nothing wrong in circumscribing basic housing rights. But a deeper look at the law suggests the distinction doesn't get them as far as they think.

Take the issue of eviction. A guardian may not be a tenant, but they still qualify as a "residential occupier", which means the 1977 Protection from Eviction Act (PEA) still applies. Almost all the guardians I spoke to had been thrown out with two weeks warning or less (although some agencies, like Camelot, have changed to offer longer notices). Giles Peaker, a specialist housing lawyer at Anthony Gold Solicitors, told me, "That means that in order to get somebody out there has to be, firstly 28 days notice. And secondly, if the person does not go, the only way they can be got out is by a court order." So, those two-week notice periods are on shakey legal ground, and if guardians were to contest it, their agencies would have to take them to court to get them out of a property.

The guardian agencies are unsurprisingly keen to keep this quiet. If landlords had to wait a whole month to get their property back, would they bother with a guardian scheme in the first place?

The poor conditions and dubious legalities are bad enough, but what's worse is that guardian companies like to present themselves as offering creative solutions to the housing crisis - bringing empty buildings back into use as homes at a rate people can actually afford. And people tend to agree with them. Last year Camelot was even allowed to sponsor an Empty Homes conference put on by Shelter, the housing and homelessness charity.

But guardian services sell themselves as anti-squatting services. Squatting is a common response to homelessness, but without convincing landlords and councils that squatting is bad, the service guardian agencies offer is redundant. That's why on their websites squatters are portrayed as a threat while guardians are stylised as "key workers" and "creatives" happy to pay their way. The reality, of course, is that they are talking about the same group: people that cannot afford decent housing because wages are too low and rent is too high.

Ironically, businesses are outsourcing anti-squatting services to people who might otherwise have been squatters. "I'm completely ideologically opposed to guardianship but I had no other option that I could afford," says Charlie. "I had just graduated and was trying to find a job. It was dark, though - the people who had lived there before, where are they now?"

Robin Hood Gardens (Photo author's own)

And it's not always derelict pubs or empty office blocks that guardians are asked to occupy. Often they end up in council houses that have been cleared, pending demolition to be turned into luxury apartments for the well off and by-to-let landlords. Guardians become a physical part of the same process that means that they can't afford a proper home in the first place: gentrification.

This is the position that a 42-year-old council worker who we'll call "James" finds himself in. He's living as a guardian with agency Dot Dot Dot at Robin Hood Gardens, a brutalist council estate that's soon to be pulled down. James told me, "I'm very aware of who we are and what this represents. But gentrification will happen whether we live here or not. I think we've integrated into the community as much as possible; there's been no animosity towards us." 

Nevertheless, while there are plenty of reasons to criticise guardian schemes, a lot of people continue to find them attractive, or at least necessary. "I think this is one of many solutions to the housing crisis," a friend of mine living as a guardian told me from a run-down office above a car garage in Camden. "It's not a long-term solution. But it allows people who are trapped in a life of paying rent, who will struggle to ever earn enough money to afford a house [to afford a place to live]. And with that comes risk. If I come back from a holiday and find my stuff on the porch then that's the risk I'm taking."

This seems to be an example of the nose-diving aspirations of today's graduate, one without a future beyond unpaid internships and sleeping in old fire stations and closed infirmaries, locked in a long struggle for financial independence. No genuine solution to the housing crisis would look like this. But as long as London is a city where for many finding a home is impossible, guardian schemes will continue to serve a purpose.

@PKleinfeld

More responses to the housing crisis: 

A Depressing Tour of London's Ghost Mansions

Sneaking Into Brighton's New Homeless Shipping Container Ghetto

Everyone in the UK Still Hates Squatters