Central London properties, minus the sky-high rents. But what’s the catch?

Arthur Duke, MD of Live-in Guardians, at a London property inhabitated by a live-in guardian. Image: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

“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 on property guardians, the latest in a series of upbeat features on the practice of recruiting people to live in empty commercial or residential buildings for a fee. There are agencies that exist entirely to find and vet potential occupants; now photo-heavy features regularly appear in papers and magazines, showing guardians living the high life in rural mansions and Kensington apartments. But is everything quite as bright as it looks?

The practice first emerged in the Netherlands in the 1990s. At the time, squatters were occupying empty Dutch buildings in huge numbers, and gained legal status through a ruling that stated owners could only evict them by taking them to court. Property guardianship was a way of preventing this problem: to this day, Dutch property guardianship agencies are still known as “anti-squat agencies”.

In the UK, property guardianship has been around for about five years – and, in a country which 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 as of 2013, 2.8 per cent of all the homes in England. Almost a third of these had been empty for more than six months. And that’s before we even get to commercial properties. 

For the building’s owners, it’s a good deal: leaving a building empty can reduce its value by up to 5 per cent, while installing security can cost £6,000 a month.  For the property guardians, it’s not too bad either, as they pay between 30 and 60 per cent of a standard market rate in what is, especially in London, one of the worst renters’ markets in living memory. But what they pay isn’t rent, and they’re not technically tenants – the fees go to the agencies, not to the building’s owner, in exchange for keeping the guardians in check and popping in for inspections every month or so.

Arthur Duke, managing director of Live-In Guardians, says his customers tend to be 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.” Low fees are the draw for pretty much all potential guardians. Most stay with the company for around 6 to 9 months; some stay in just one property, others move through several. When a building is finally needed by its owners, the guardians are notified and offered other properties to stay in.

Even if you make it past the checks, there are a fair few rules to contend with. No pets, no parties, no smoking, no candles... Oh, and you can’t leave the property for more than 24 hours without explicit permission. Most agencies also carry out unannounced inspections at least once a month. Until recently, several also had clauses in their contracts forbidding guardians to speak to the press; as far as we can tell, this is no longer the case. 

The rules highlight the big catch with property guardianship: even its strongest advocate would admit that the exchange is, essentially, reduced rents (sorry, we mean fees) for reduced rights. Property guardians aren’t tenants – they’re “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 specifically to allow such schemes to operate: agencies need to be able to boot out tenants when a building is due to be reoccupied, sold or demolished.

"Policy makers only see the stories where people live in Westminster palaces - they ignore the fact that it’s creating guardians without rights or security."

Real life is not always that simple. Giles Peaker, a UK property lawyer, was approached in 2012 by a guardian from one of the larger agencies, who’d been locked out of the property after being given only two weeks’ notice by telephone. Her belongings, which were still inside the locked 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 involved could name which agency it was.)

In court, Peaker argued that the 1977 Eviction Act applies to guardians, even if agencies prefer not to describe them as tenants: that gives them the right to at least four weeks’ notice before being asked to leave. Despite the outcome of this case, several of the property guardian agencies currently operating in the UK still maintain a two week eviction policy.

Peaker believes that legal hiccups like these are emerging because property guardianship has become bigger business. “It’s a maturity thing – it wasn’t exactly below the radar before, but... since the 2008 property crash, it became a big thing. Agencies are starting to realise that there are regulations that apply to them.”

This professionalisation seems likely to continue. Many agencies now offer themselves to councils as a way to fill large estates in regeneration areas, or occupy temporarily empty council homes. Ad Hoc is responsible for around 2,000-3,000 UK properties at once; almost all their properties in London are part of large, empty housing estates.

Colum Anglin, the agency’s operations director, says that the company’s size requires it to stick to a rigid legal framework, claiming: “We invest in an in-house legal team, while smaller competitors don’t.” (Every agency we spoke to had sought legal advice before drawing up their contracts, though some didn’t have full-time legal teams.)

The practice remains controversial. In 2009, filmmaker Abel Heijkamp  made a documentary following seven guardians with Ad Hoc and Camelot in the Netherlands called Leegstand zonder zorgen or Carefree Vacant Property (we get the sense this title was slightly ironic). The interviewees complain about the unannounced inspections, lack of privacy and the possibility of being kicked out at short notice.

After the film’s release, Heijkamp was contacted by more guardians. Later the same year, he founded something called the Bond Precaire Woonvormen (“The Union of Precarious Renters”), which helps find legal support for guardians and campaigns for the practice to stop, and which has successfully forced some local authorities and landlords to stop using the schemes. Recently it also released a document accusing Camelot of using people in need of housing as “real estate pawns”. In essence, the organisation objects to property guardians being given substantial responsibilities, yet living without full tenants’ rights.

Heijkamp says he has been contacted by guardians in the UK as well as Belgium and the Netherlands (impressive, as their website is almost entirely in Dutch). In the UK, he says, “Policy makers only see the stories where people live in Westminster palaces - they ignore the fact that it’s creating guardians without rights or security. 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”.

The agencies do come across as being more concerned with their clients than their guardians. Arthur Duke of Live-In Guardians says he is anxious to show the public and his clients that guardians are “not immigrants or asylum seekers but professionals, young graduates”; meanwhile, the Camelot website boasts that “our guardians are very flexible and have a sense of adventure".

Despite these problems, however, lawyer Giles Peaker still sees the schemes as viable housing options, and a convenient way to kill two birds with one stone. But, he adds, the system needs regulation: “Once it becomes something that people are looking at as a serious housing option, there have to be questions about how they’re operating. Like so many things, it’s an arrangement that can work – if it's done properly between consenting adults.”

 
 
 
 

The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

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