A lamp lights a door in a tower of boarded-up flats in London.
A lamp lights a door in a tower of boarded-up flats in London. Luke MacGregor/Reuters

A new report calls for bolstering the rights of people who act as live-in security for vacant buildings.

The number of so-called property guardians in London is rapidly growing, and these Londoners—who act as live-in security in vacant buildings—are often pushed to accept limited rights and a precarious existence in exchange for cheap housing, according to a report released today.

The investigation by the London Assembly is the first to look at the property-guardian phenomenon. It estimates that between 5,000 and 7,000 people in the U.K. are residing in buildings on these terms, most of them in the capital. “On current trends, [the number] has the potential to grow dramatically,” the report notes.

But the nascent industry of property-guardian companies—who serve as middlemen between owners and prospective guardians—relies on legal gray areas and an “unbalanced” relationship favoring the companies and property owners, the report says.

Property guardianship originated in the mid-1990s in the Netherlands, where Dutch security firm Camelot started housing people in empty buildings to deter squatters. It has since spread to other parts of Europe, including the U.K., Ireland, Belgium, Germany, and France. British guardians pay “license fees” at below-market rates to occupy empty buildings and protect them from vandalism and squatters. Some live in homes that are among London’s estimated 20,000 “ghost homes,” but most reside in ex-public housing complexes awaiting redevelopment.

The property-guardian model has been touted as a win-win-win: Guardians get cheap accommodation in quirky buildings; owners safeguard their properties and often avoid hefty taxes on empty buildings; and guardian companies receive a healthy income. In the U.K., guardianship has become popular with local governments (or councils) as a means of stabilizing large, vacant estates of social housing before they are redeveloped. The report states that 24 out of London’s 33 local governments use property guardians, with more than 1,000 guardians living in publicly-owned buildings in 2016.

A map of property-guardian hotspots around London. Blue dots are locations of guardianships and orange areas are hotspots. Light orange indicates 90 percent confidence; dark orange indicates 99 percent confidence. (London Assembly, based on data from the University of York)

Lucrative council contracts have resulted in a wave of new property-guardian companies. According to the report, in the space of one two-week period, there were more than 370 new advertisements for guardianships across London. Increased competition meant that some companies offered councils a cut of the license fees, which led to fee hikes for the guardians, who now pay an average of £475 ($665) a month. (The average cost of a double room in London, according to rental site SpareRoom’s latest rental index, is £737, or $1031, a month.) As demand soared, stories emerged of dilapidated properties and firms issuing guardians with 24-hour eviction notices and “gagging clauses” to stifle complaints.

Critics say this is a result of gray areas in the license agreements that guardians sign instead of conventional leases. Sian Berry, a Green Party member of the London Assembly and chair of its housing committee, said the investigation—which drew on independent research by the University of York—aimed to prevent guardianship from becoming a substandard form of renting.

“There were some pieces in the newspaper about how [guardians were] living lovely bohemian lives in old hospitals and schools, but we were also hearing complete horror stories of people living with no rights, and being treated appallingly,” she said.

Berry said of the “arbitrary” rules that building managers sometimes impose: “As bad as rights are when you’re a renter, there is reasonably decent regulation that protects your basic human rights.” It is not uncommon for guardian agreements to include language that allows company agents entry to properties at any time, bans children and overnight guests, and prohibits residents from going on vacation without permission.

The report also highlights the changing profile of guardians, from “creative twenty-somethings” to low-income professionals of all ages. It argues that although some people enjoy living as guardians, many are being driven to it by financial necessity. What was once an alternative housing choice is now a last resort for those on the sharp end of the U.K.’s housing crisis. Researchers found that 22 per cent of guardians were dissatisfied with the repairs and maintenance of their property, 37 percent had problems with mold or condensation, and 55 percent could not keep their living areas warm.

Councils have found themselves caught between their need to keep security costs low and their responsibility to ensure the health and safety of guardians. Bristol City Council decided to end its contracts with Camelot and another firm after a scandal, while London boroughs have faced criticism for not doing more to regulate property-guardian companies. Berry argues that local authorities have the power to enforce standards: “Before [councils] make any profits they should be making sure the buildings are decent.”

Some progress has already been made. Most firms are now adhering to a mandatory 28-day eviction period. A group of seven has produced a white paper on safety standards, and several companies even took part in the assembly’s investigation.

Yet the report calls for protections to go further. It pushes for the government to clarify guardians’ legal status and approve standardized contracts for them, and urges improvements in fire safety (currently, guardians are expected to supply their own fire extinguishers, alarms, and blankets). It also urges lawmakers to include guardianships in planned reforms to the private rental sector, such as a proposed ban on broker fees charged to tenants, a cap on deposits, and access to independent services for resolving disputes.

Rex Duis, 36, a property guardian living in a disused pub in Westminster who has long campaigned for better standards, said the report’s proposals could go some way toward eliminating “cowboy” guardian companies. “We don’t want these buildings being shut down, because there is a desperate housing shortage,” he said. “But we need all guardian companies and councils to be on the same page.”

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