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Paying to Squat in London's Derelict Buildings

"Property guardians" are people who pay cheap rent to live as de facto security guards for landlords looking for permanent tenants.

by Philip Kleinfeld
Sep 25 2014, 4:05pm

The pub where Charlie Fegan lived before his days as a property guardian. 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 of the University of London, is describing life on the fringes of London’s housing crisis. For the last two years he's been living as a "property guardian," paying for the privilege of sleeping in the city's empty buildings, where he essentially works as a security guard.

As rents in the UK capital soar, more and more people are turning to property guardianship as an answer to their individual housing crises. In the last four years the number of agencies in the country has increased by between 40 and 50 percent, with big multinational firms like Camelot and Ad Hoc and smaller “social” businesses like Dot Dot Dot all getting in on the action.

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 rents. And because the agencies get money from the guardians, they can offer a cheap service to the landlord. It’s sold as a win-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” who sign contracts to occupy buildings without any of the legal rights a regular tenant is entitled to. The result is a group of companies that, some guardians say, ban visitors, enter properties without warning, levy fines for minor violations, arbitrarily confiscate deposits, and dish out evictions on ridiculously short notice.

“Being a guardian means living in a constant state of anxiety,” Charlie tells me from a large three-story 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. 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 residents 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 apparently 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 multistory 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.”

In the contracts most guardians sign, they are told they will have two weeks to pack up and prepare and leave when the landlord takes back possession of the building. But Charlie claims that 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 by the author

When I contacted Arthur Duke, the CEO of Live-in Guardians, 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, but a small electrical fire had broken out after a storm that caused flood. A wireless radio–linked smoke alarm, Duke said, 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.”

Charlie and all his housemates’ dispute this account—they say there was no fire alarm or storm, just a squalid building offered to “desperate” guardians.

Inside a guarded property. Photo by the author

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 slideshow of kooky locations, exposed brick and fixed-gear bikes, as if living in a guardian scheme is like going to an artisanal coffee shop. But Charlie’s story is by no means unique.

Holly Cozens, a 31-year-old from Brighton was living in an old convent run by Camelot—the largest guardian agency in the market—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 COO, denies the company confiscates deposits arbitrarily. “Unless there is a legitimate reason to make a deduction Camelot will always repay 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

Another issue is that nobody seems to be sure whether core aspects of property guardianship are even legal. Guardian agencies remain convinced that by distinguishing between tenants and licensees they are doing nothing wrong. 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 t 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 their policies and now offer their guardians more time to leave). Giles Peaker, a 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.” Those two-week notice periods are therefore on shaky legal ground, and if a guardian 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?

These companies like to present themselves as offering creative solutions to the housing crisis—bringing empty buildings back into use as homes at rents people can actually afford. And people tend to agree with them. Last year Camelot even sponsored an Empty Homes conference put on by Shelter, the housing and homelessness charity.

But there's something ironic about guardian services selling themselves as anti-squatting services. Squatting is a common response to homelessness, but guardian agencies' livelihoods depend on convincing landlords and councils that squatting is bad. On their websites, squatters are portrayed as a threat while guardians are stylized as “key workers” and “creatives” happy to pay their way. The reality, of course, is that they are talking about the same group: people who cannot afford decent housing because wages are too low and rent is too high.

So businesses and landlords 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 by the author

And it’s not always derelict pubs or empty office blocks that guardians are asked to occupy. Often they end up in public housing that has been cleared and is awaiting demolition, to be replaced by luxury apartments for the well-off. Guardians become a physical part of the same process that makes it harder for them 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 toward us.” 

Nevertheless, while there are plenty of reasons to criticize 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 parking lot 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. 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 graduates, who often don't see 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 remains a place where finding a home is impossible for many, guardian schemes will continue to serve a purpose.

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