The Temporary Home: Live-in Guardians in the Neoliberal City

by Property Guardian Research Collective

Property guardianships are a growing form of temporary housing in the city and can be linked to wider issues of precarity and the securitisation of urban space.

First published: 06 March, 2014 | Category: Housing

Today you get the keys to your new place. It’s a 1960s school building and you’ve got the art studio as your room. The sinks are filthy, so you get some cleaning products and then move in, put down a camper bed and a rug. A week later, you come home after work to find a note telling you your room has been inspected, and asking that the hallways be kept completely clear of your possessions, or you’ll get a fine next time. Your contract says ‘This is not a tenancy’. You might be able to live here for a week, three months or a year; you just don’t know.

The above scenario is similar to one that  a person finds themselves in when they decide to become a ‘property guardian'. Property guardianship is a form of temporary housing that is becoming increasingly common in British cities. The ‘guardian’ pays a ‘licence fee’ to a security company employed by the property owner. Prospective guardians are attracted to the scheme because it promises housing for around a third of market rent, often in central locations and unusual buildings, for example old hospitals, light industrial buildings, pubs and offices. Property owners benefit from cheap on-site security and the peace of mind of having a caretaker, the security company makes a profit from the mechanism, and empty homes don’t go to waste. Everyone is happy. Or so it seems.
 

A brief history

The early history of property guardianship can be traced back to the Netherlands. It was first developed there in the 1990s to allow artists and students to access cheap and temporary ‘live/work’ space in cities. Property guardianship quickly developed as a form of temporary housing and by 2007 it was estimated that as many as 8,000 people lived as property guardians just in the Netherlands.[1] Over the last ten years the scheme has spread to other European countries, including France, Belgium, Germany and Ireland. In the UK the largest property guardian companies are Camelot and Ad Hoc, both Dutch in origin.  However, there are now at least nineteen other businesses offering a similar service, most of which have opened in the last five years.[2] Most of the smaller companies operate only in London and the South East, while the larger companies also have a growing presence in cities across the UK, including Glasgow, Cardiff, Birmingham and Newcastle. The nature of the scheme makes it difficult to pinpoint the exact number of guardians, partly because of its temporary nature, and partly because guardian companies are not counted as housing providers. However, our research indicates that there are currently at least 3,000 people living as property guardians in the UK at any given moment, and the number appears to be rising.[3]

As a living arrangement, property guardianship is generally understood to benefit people on low or fluctuating incomes who would otherwise struggle to afford to rent in expensive inner city areas, as well as those saving up to buy a home. While the scheme is perceived as a cheaper rental alternative, it is necessary here to draw a distinction between the rights of a guardian and those of a tenant. The main difference is the nature of the contract or ‘licence agreement’ that binds them to the property guardian company and that allows them to live in a given building. A guardian’s licence agreement stipulates a greater number of restrictions than a standard assured shorthold tenancy agreement, including no children or dependants, limits to the number of visitors, and shorter notice periods (usually 2 weeks). Crucially, a guardian does not have exclusive possession of the building, but only permission to inhabit certain parts of it. This means that the company managing the building, or the owner, can enter any part of the building, including the guardian’s own room, at any time without notice, carry out general inspections as well as monitor compliance with the licence agreement.


Experiences of ‘adventurous’ living

“You have chosen to live adventurously in someone else's property.”

Camelot Property Management FAQ online (2011)


The websites of property guardian companies promote the scheme as something ‘adventurous’ and stress ‘flexibility’ as a necessary characteristic of prospective guardians.[4] The ideal guardian is imagined as someone with few ties to place or work, independent, gregarious, someone who can adapt to any situation at short notice. However, an important aspect of the licence agreement discussed above is the ‘gagging clause’ that forbids guardians from talking to the media about the property they are living in, the company, or the owner. As a consequence, there is little in the public domain about what it’s really like to ‘live adventurously in someone else’s property’.

In the course of our research we have spoken to current and former guardians about what this means in practice. Although many of them acknowledged the economic benefits of such schemes, they also reflected on their worrying disadvantages. Firstly, there is no ‘decent homes’ or similar code of practice for guardian companies. Some of the buildings that guardians are offered are in uninhabitable conditions, and guardians reported using their own time and money to dispose of rubbish and clean buildings to bring them up to a sanitary and safe level. A recent report from Central London suggested that guardians in an old hospital building in London were living without light on one floor of the building, owing to hoardings being put up.  Secondly, the surveillance by some companies was reported as intrusive, with people returning from work to find that their possessions had been searched. In our research and elsewhere, several guardians report issues such as the retention of deposits, excess charges and unsafe living conditions. In addition, many of the guardians we have spoken to indicated that it is almost impossible to abide by the terms of the licence agreement, meaning that they are at constant risk of being sanctioned with fines, or worse, eviction with no notice. Although not technically ‘housing’, the development of such agreements sit alongside the recent diffusion of conditionalised forms of tenure, in which housing is dependent on the constant monitoring of residents’ behaviours; for example in social housing. [5]
 

Property guardianship and the securitisation of everyday life

Being a property guardian, as one Camelot employee has put it, means ‘providing a service’ for a property owner (via the property guardian company). However, guardians pay for the privilege of offering this service. In the Netherlands, property guardianship is called ‘anti-squatting’: live-in guardian schemes are presented as both an alternative to squatting (or ‘legal squatting’) and as an active deterrent to residential and commercial squatting. In fact, in its Dutch birthplace the growth of property guardianship and the recent criminalisation of squatting are inextricably linked, as the mechanism was promoted in the guidance to the anti-squatting law itself. With the recent criminalisation of squatting in residential properties in England in 2012, a worrying trend seems to be developing.[6]

Property guardianship is much more than a mechanism to stop squatters and theft. It should be seen as part of a wider securitisation of everyday life, where owning property is a ‘risk’ that must be managed, and where security personnel is deployed as a matter of course in an increasing amount of public and private sites. With live-in guardians, the security of a building is outsourced to precariously-employed people in need of genuinely affordable housing. These people ultimately bear the responsibility for damage to the property, entry by an unknown person, and also for any loss of value. Guardians are vetted using a code of practice for screening security industry employees, yet none of the guardians we have spoken to had received any kind of security training or accreditation. Ironically, if unsurprisingly, anyone can set up a property guardian company, with very little scrutiny required. The genuine security credentials of these companies are minimal, and most are only accredited with voluntary national building security standards and contracting/building codes.


Housing precarity in an age of crises 

Live-in property guardianship schemes, though still small, offer an important lens to understand the wider problem of lack of secure, affordable and appropriate housing in the UK. The key benefit cited time and time again by guardians – the low ‘rent’ in exchange for somewhere to live – is only a benefit because other options are (usually) not affordable in terms of the income they have. It appears that an increasing number of guardians are in fact not creative adventurers but ‘key workers’ and the working poor. It is no coincidence that the recession and the steep price rises in the private rented sector have benefited the property guardian company industry and allowed it to expand, with an estimated growth in demand of 30% in London and 40-50% in the Midlands since 2008.

These figures inevitably point to the wider systemic crisis of housing for many people and reflect a wider context of conditionalised and low-quality housing in both the private and social rented sectors. Several guardians we spoke to have pointed out that their experience with property guardian companies and private landlords has been similarly negative. In the choice between private renting and property guardianship, the latter often ‘wins’, despite all drawbacks, simply because it is less expensive. As tenants’ rights have been systematically reduced over the last 30 years, forms of ‘licenced living’ represent a further shift towards ever more insecure forms of tenure. The implications of this shift are yet to be fully addressed.  The political imperative to ‘combat empty homes’ shows how eye-catching government initiatives tend to prioritise temporary solutions such as property guardianship over other precarious living arrangements in the private rented sector or otherwise. [7]

Property guardianship thus speaks to the growing prevalence of temporary forms of inhabitation and the concomitant expansion of labour and life insecurity for a growing number of city-dwellers across the Global North. This is visible in the recent trend of re-fitting of shipping containers as live-work spaces and in the forcible eviction of vulnerable tenants in the UK and elsewhere as ‘austerity urbanism’ becomes an alibi for dispossession and speculation. Housing and work flexibility have become the ‘new normal’ and the mechanism of guardianship epitomises this increasing precariousness, other symptoms of which include the widespread use of zero-hour contracts and a turn to increasingly punitive forms of workfare.

In the end, property guardianship has troubling implications both in practice and in terms of the ever-growing need to re-imagine how we live in and think about shared city life. The rise of private tenants groups in London[8] shows that renters are beginning to make their collective voice heard, but so far there has been little sustained organising against property guardianship. In the Netherlands, the Union of Precarious Tenants has forced some local authorities and landlords to stop using or limit the schemes. In the UK, where tenant control of housing seems to be permanently in decline, much activist and academic work still needs to be done to challenge the positive spin about property guardianship and connect it to campaigning about wider issues of housing insecurity. We hope our work exploring the rise of property guardianship and the experiences of guardians can contribute to this.

 This article is part of NLP's series The Contemporary City.

The Property Guardianship Collective is a group of academics and researchers who are monitoring the extent and growth of property guardianship in the UK and exploring its relationship to low-quality, temporary housing, waged/unwaged labour and the ‘securing’ of urban space. We are interested in talking to guardians, ex-guardians and other interested people, and want to share our work in academia and housing/urban activism. Find out more here or contact us at propertyguardianresearch@gmail.com


 



[1] Moore, Elaine, ‘Tenants at home in commercial buildings’, Financial Times, 20th July 2007. See also Heikjamp, Abel, 2008, Carefree Vacant Property (documentary film) 2008 (at http://leegstandzonderzorgen.nl/category/english/ )

[2] Dawson, Gloria, Property Guardianship and Flexible Living in the UK, unpublished MA thesis, University of Leeds, 2012.

[3] This estimate is based on a pilot study of the database of one London-based property guardian company, cross-referenced with press releases, media statements and data related to local authorities’ contracts obtained through Freedom of Information requests. Given that on Camelot’s UK site on 16/01/14 shows 906 available spaces in 267 properties across the UK, this is a very conservative estimate.

[5] Hodkinson, S., & Robbins, G. (2013). The return of class war conservatism? Housing under the UK Coalition Government, Critical Social Policy, 33(1), 57-77

[6] Corporate Watch, ‘Anti-Squat Security Companies: Protection by Occupation?’ Autumn-Winter 2011, http://www.corporatewatch.org.uk/?lid=4190

[7] For instance, see the Empty Homes Agency’s encouragement to use property guardianship schemes, ‘What to do with your empty home’, http://www.emptyhomes.com/what-you-can-do-2/get-involved/what-to-do-with-your-empty-home/

[8] At least 7 at the time of writing: DIGS Hackney Renters, Southwark Tenants, Islington Tenants, Waltham Forest Renters, Tower Hamlets and Lambeth Renters. Some of these groups are part of a wider London Radical Housing Network - http://radicalhousingnetwork.org/

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