“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.”