How the creative industries could offer a way out of the dangerous property guardianship trend

You, too, could be the lucky inhabitant of an unpleasant abandoned building like this one. Image: Steve Richards.

It was the hip new housing trend that nobody really wanted.

Property guardianship, with its unregulated, exploitative system, should have been a short-lived phase that had ended by 2017, a phase that had been brought to attention so regularly that some sort of intervention had already forced it to end.

But of course this isn’t the case and the ongoing housing crisis means that tenants, though they must technically be called ‘guardians’, have essentially bargained away any rights in order to afford housing which is often unsafe and uninhabitable, with little or no security.

A recent government housing survey brought to light the continuing problems of overcrowding in the rental sector, and the trend of younger people continuing to live in unaffordable rental properties, unable to save money to buy their own home.

The figures are even more surprising than you’d expect.

In 2005-06, 24 per cent of those aged 25-34 lived in the private rented sector and by 2015-16 this had almost doubled, to 46 per cent.

It is many of these young people, forced to rent and thus unable to afford sky-rocketing payments, that have turned to what has been referred to as ‘legal squatting’.

The question as to whether it should even be legal – with practically no regulation, the power to evict a ‘guardian’ without prior warning, and the ability to ban any visitors – is a pertinent one. There is a very high price to pay for such cheap rent.

And, as rent is now often reaching near market-level, whether the rent can even be called cheap is also questionable.

Sian Berry, the Green Party London Assembly Member, recently researched the use of property guardianship by local authorities in London along with activist Samir Jeraj, and found that in 2016 over 200 local authority buildings were being used.

Sian Berry AM, pictured at a protest in 2016. Image: Garry Knight.

The pair also discovered that over 1,000 ‘property guardians’ are being charged to live in what they deemed ‘precarious conditions in empty public buildings owned by councils across London’.

The findings are pretty bleak, and demonstrate that even property guardian companies considered to be ‘better’ treat their guardians as what Samir describes as ‘essentially unpaid security guards’.

He said: ‘Councils should not become second-class landlords by allowing their properties to be used to exploit people let down by the housing crisis.

‘Property guardians should be treated like any other tenant, with proper health and safety rules, notice periods and protection from exploitation.’

Berry and Jeraj’s research clearly points to an exploitative and unsafe system, and they both call on London councils to step up and put an end to it.

What is interesting, however, is the suggestion they make for the use of the public buildings.

They argue that councils should put the buildings to more creative use, where community or cultural organisations in need of short-term spaces for projects could take on the care of these buildings.

With councils rejecting proposals for art studios or creative spaces in favour of luxury apartments or retail spaces, this could be a solution to both ending exploitative housing, and creating opportunity for space where there is currently very little.

Especially now, with our looming exit from the EU likely to threaten the creative industries – as described at length in this concerning House of Lords debate, these buildings could provide the essential space for creatives in the city. 

London’s councils must stand up to the dangers of property guardianship and commit to making better use of our under-loved public spaces: a utilisation of the space which does not perpetuate the exploitative and dangerous housing for those most affected by the housing crisis. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.