The number of empty properties in the UK is increasing every year, and with the lack of affordable housing an even greater issue, living as a property guardian is seen by some as the only way to live affordably in a major city like London or Manchester.
But accusations of mistreatment from tenants has dogged the sector. Pippa Neill investigates what living as a property guardian is really like in order to fully understand the role that it can play as a solution to the housing crisis.
In September 2019, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government revealed that there are over 200,000 properties that have been empty for more than six months across the UK.
Properties may be left empty for a number of reasons. It might be a second home that is frequently left vacant, or maybe a landlord cannot afford to repair the property, whatever the reason, empty homes provide a host of problems both for landlords, councils and local communities.
A dilapidated empty property can create an eyesore for people living in the area, lowering the ‘quality’ of an area and putting the building at risk of vandalism, arson, fly-tipping or being occupied by squatters.
However, empty properties are even more problematic when looking at the current housing market in the UK, at the same time that there are 200,000 vacant properties there are an estimated 320,000 people living without a permanent roof over their head.
Two birds with one stone
A property guardian is someone who enters into an agreement to live in a building or part of a building that would otherwise be empty. The resident has the role of safeguarding the building, and in return, they can live in unusual properties, for cheap rent in often central locations.
On the Ad Hoc property guardianship website, properties include a room in a police station in Taunton for £195 a month, or one room in a police station in Bath for £485.
Property guardianship began in the Netherlands in the 1990s and has grown in popularity in the UK since then. According to Graham Sievers from the Property Guardian Providers Association, there are currently over 10,000 guardians living in the UK with this number growing year on year.
Unlike a rented property, residents have a 28-day notice period, which in theory works both ways, perhaps the landlord has finally got planning permission or finally secured their funding, whatever the reason, the 28-day period means that property owners can get quick access to their building.
For the tenant, this could be beneficial if they don’t want to be tied into a lengthy rental contract. But it also makes their housing situation potentially precarious.
The rights of a property guardian are often left unclear, with large companies being known to take advantage of residents, with tenants paying disproportionately high rents to live in unstable and unsafe environments.
On Facebook, one resident who was a property guardian for the company Live-in-Guardians said: ‘LIG take advantage of people.’
‘We were treated like criminals, not able to invite friends over for dinner, or even a drink,’ they added.
‘They cut the central heating in the winter, we were 30 people living in an old building with no heating.’
The 28 day notice period is also often abused, with tenants being kicked out of properties before they have the chance to find somewhere else to live.
An ex-resident for the property guardianship company Ad Hoc described: ‘I received a written warning from the inspector threatening eviction due to an untidy room, my room is always clean, never untidy.
‘I live with constant background anxiety, it is messing with the mental health of myself and everyone else living in this building.’
New Start contacted Live-in Guardians and Ad Hoc for a statement, but at the time of writing, they have not responded.
One company who are working hard to transform the property guardianship landscape is the social enterprise Dot Dot Dot.
The founder and CEO of Dot Dot Dot, Katherine Hibbert wrote her first book, ‘Free: Adventures on the Margins of a Wasteful Society’ in 2010.
Having lived and understood the disproportionate waste in the UK’s housing market, she set out to tackle this by creating a fair and honest property guardianship company.
In 2017, Dot Dot Dot jointly commissioned ‘The Law on Property Guardianship’ in order to improve the rights of a property guardian by ensuring that their rights are entrenched by law.
‘Property guardians have exactly the same rights as tenants to a safe home’ said Hibbert, when speaking to NewStart.
‘It is incredibly frustrating that this has not always been made crystal clear.
‘If property guardianship companies aren’t providing their residents with a home that meets the same health and safety standards as the private rental sector then they are breaking the law,’ she adds.
Dot Dot Dot is a major success story in the industry and have provided hundreds of individuals safe homes in what would otherwise be an empty property.
One tenant has described: ‘I got a job in central London and wasn’t sure if I was going to keep it, but when I was looking for a flat it was all cash in hand landlords and the only house I could afford was miles from my work.
‘I now live in Canada Water, two tube stops from my work, I pay £470 a month and I feel safe living here, we have a contract, I know where I stand.’
Despite being a huge advocate for property guardianships, Hibbert admitted that being a guardian is not for everyone. She says: ‘Being a property guardian can be difficult in all respects except the fact it’s cheaper.
‘There are lots of people who are property guardians but who would rather have a conventional home, but unfortunately in our current housing market this just isn’t possible for everyone.’
‘We have a partnership with Crisis and what we’ve learned is that inevitably a lot of people who are homeless have a lot of other struggles. The extra requirements of being a property guardian compared to renting a normal flat are often not that easy to take on.
‘It is essential that we continue to build more affordable, stable homes.’
If done fairly and correctly then property guardianships are a valuable option that can benefit the tenant, landlord and the local community.
However, this is only one part of the problem, people want not just affordable homes, but permanently affordable homes, and living as a property guardian cannot provide this, but it can provide a solution for those who for whatever reason are looking for a short-term affordable home, and for this, it should not be overlooked.
Photo Credit – Pixabay