The home guard
Property guardians can save social landlords money by protecting empty homes from vandalism and squatters. But with criticism the practice is lowering standards in the private rented sector, is it ethical? Michael Pooler investigates
As the sun rises each morning, George (not his real name) wakes to a spectacular view of the London skyline from his window. To one side, the glimmering glass and steel towers of Canary Wharf; to the other, the shining obelisk of the Shard. At £250 a month, his rent is almost half the going rate of a room in a shared private home in this deprived, but desirable, part of the east end.
‘I really like it here,’ says George, who is 25 and works for a web design consultancy. ‘It is an excellent location and the only way I could afford to move out of home.’
He and his two housemates, all young professionals in their mid-20s, live in a 1970s brutalist block of flats owned by a local authority. Like many other people living in the building, though, they are ‘property guardians’ rather than tenants.
In exchange for knock-down fees, paid to a private company tasked with protecting a number of long-term empty flats on behalf of the council, they receive a ‘licence to occupy’ the premises, which are usually unfurnished and provide basic conditions.
As property guardians, it is their duty to ensure the flat is occupied - thereby deterring break-ins and damage to the property.
The deal, though, comes with a caveat: they have substantially reduced rights compared with tenants and, crucially, the landlord can evict them whenever it wishes.
Against a backdrop of rocketing rents - according to property website Findaproperty.com rents in the capital have risen by 3.2 per cent over the first three months of this year alone - property guardian companies have exploded in recent years: a market-driven solution that brings together the needs of occupants and landlords.
Figures obtained by Inside Housing indicate that councils in inner London, where the practice is most common, are increasingly using the service to protect vacant or half-empty office and residential blocks, often in buildings due to undergo renovation or demolition.
Greenwich Council says it has used guardians in 180 properties to date saving around £800 for each on security costs. Its guardians are also required to pay council tax while in residence. Meanwhile, Wirral Partnership Homes, which owns 12,400 properties in Merseyside, provides and object lesson in how this service can be used in an ethical fashion.
But given the relatively poor conditions and inherent lack of security in property guardianship, there have been some questions about whether it is a practice social landlords should be endorsing.
Originating in Holland in the 1990s as an anti-squatting measure, property guardian firms today protect a range of vacant buildings such as schools, churches, government buildings, country manors and even castles, and, at the same time, provide accommodation to more than 70,000 people across Europe.
The market is still relatively small-scale in the UK and there are no nationwide statistics available. Estimates suggest no more than 10,000 people live under such arrangements, however none of the companies Inside Housing contacted wished to give specific numbers.
‘We create a win-win situation,’ says Bob de Vilder, chief executive of Camelot, an established company in the property guardian market in Europe. ‘For the owner there is security; on the other hand we provide for people looking for low-price housing.’
And, of course, there is a tidy profit for the middle man: last year Camelot’s turnover in Europe hit €22.3 million (£18.2 million). The company has grown by 30 per cent in the past three years and expects its size to expand by another quarter this year. Industry players say the public sector - and social landlords in particular - form a significant part of their growing client base.
For landlords, property guardians offer a cheap security alternative to costly CCTV systems and are preferable to boarding up properties, says Andrew Schofield, north west manager of Ad Hoc, the other main service provider in the field.
‘Having people present means they do not attract criminal behaviour and internal problems, such as leaks, get noticed,’ he says. ‘So the fabric of the building is maintained and its value protected.’
Mary Huxham, who until five years ago lived on the Welsh Streets in Liverpool, one of the areas earmarked for demolition under the previous government’s now defunct £2.2 billion housing market renewal programme, wants to see the area regenerated. She says that although landlords using property guardians is ‘a good thing in principle’ - ‘any vandals about know there is someone guarding properties’ - she is concerned that they ‘just move into homes as they are and are not doing anything [to improve their condition]’. Using this type of service shouldn’t be an alternative to pushing ahead with regeneration, she says.
Property guardianship is an ‘imperfect but realistic solution’ to the housing crisis, says David Ireland, chief executive of not-for-profit organisation Empty Homes. While unlocking the reserve of vacant homes, it also carries the social and community benefits of bringing empty properties back into use - such as reducing crime and increasing the esteem of an area.
He says: ‘For some people, such as young working people on low incomes, it is a reasonable trade-off between security of tenure and price. If you can’t afford rent or access social housing you have to make a compromise. In an ideal world this wouldn’t be the case, but the housing market is far from ideal.’
Indeed, those attracted to property guardianship tend to be young, often in the early stages of a career or having just moved to a city. Such people are usually willing to accept comparatively poorer conditions to gain a foothold. George’s flat, for example, was threadbare when he first moved in, without so much as ‘a stitch of carpet or even a light bulb’, he says. ‘But we knew this from the outset, so we can’t complain.’
The company he rents from guarantees only to provide a ‘kitchen space’, which consists of a sink and draining board surface, bathroom and hot water. There is no obligation for furniture, appliances or even internal doors.
To make their living environment more comfortable, George and his housemates spent a couple of weekends collecting unwanted furniture and discarded wood from the street to put up shelves, mend broken doors and get the flat in habitable condition.
But the downside is that they can be turfed out at short notice - making it an inherently precarious arrangement. Jonathan Cox, head of housing at law firm Anthony Collins, explains how the ‘licence to occupy’ differs from a tenancy: ‘In this situation, the guardians provide a service to the company - protecting the property - which is a legal obligation of the agreement. The licensor may require them to move around or share the property in order to provide this service.
‘As licensees they don’t have exclusive possession, which is where an occupant can exclude everyone from the premises - including the landlord. Nor do they have the right not to be evicted. All of this is reflected in the reduced price they pay for the licence to occupy.’
Campaign groups such as Squatters Action for Secure Housing say this creates a category of ‘pseudo-tenants’ who are exploited for rent without benefiting from any of the normal tenancy rights, such as guaranteed gas and electric supplies and freedom from disturbance.
The thrust of the criticism is that as ‘guardians’ forego most rights and modern comforts in exchange for affordable rent, the phenomenon has, in effect, created a lower tier of housing in the private rented sector. Consequently, the bar of housing standards available to low earners is lowered; and the fear is that this could exert downward pressure on housing quality and security across the board. So what is stopping any landlord from issuing a licence instead of a tenancy?
Mr Cox dismisses talk of a ‘race to the bottom’, explaining that a licence can only arise in special circumstances. He adds: ‘The law is very strict about what can constitute a licence, as otherwise you are taking somebody’s rights away.’
But clearly in some instances the level of protection afforded by a licence doesn’t go far enough. Testimonies of property guardians who spoke to Inside Housing reveal poor levels of maintenance, often resulting in uninhabitable conditions, and a general sense of unfair treatment by the companies to which they pay a licence fee.
When George moved in during the throes of winter, there was no hot water because the boiler was broken. He says the company ‘fobbed him off’ for three weeks and he and his housemates were left unable to wash at the coldest time of the year. When a man from the council finally came to fix it, they were told the ‘council wouldn’t allow us to live there if they knew of the conditions’.
Inside Housing did not contact the company or the council in question because the agreement forbids George from speaking to anyone about the terms of the licence - on pain of eviction.
A glance at the contract reveals how restrictive the conditions of guardianship can be. Many companies stipulate written notification for a guardian to go on holiday, require permission for the maximum number of two guests allowed to visit at and expressly prohibit parties; all while allowing the company and landlord free access to the property at any time, without warning.
Speaking anonymously, one young woman, who currently lives in former council offices in a central London borough, recalls how last year she and her six housemates were given two days’ notice to move to another place, despite the fact they all worked full-time. Another says that one of their housemates was kicked out for writing a letter of complaint, while others were evicted for a ‘breach of contract’ - but were never actually informed of their offences.
The property guardian firms Inside Housing spoke to said this wouldn’t happen to their clients. A spokesperson for Ad Hoc says the company gives a two-week minimum notice period and rehouses 98 per cent of those who are required to move. It also has a 24-hour hotline for emergency repairs, it says.
Off the radar
Yet, even where the ultimate landlord is a housing association or council, property guardian firms fall outside the remit of the Homes and Communities Agency regulatory committee.
Leading the charge for the introduction of regulation is Camelot’s Mr de Vilder. He argues for an accreditation system, such as exists in Holland, to ‘ensure high standards and regulate prices while protecting the privacy of guardians and rights of landlords’. However, the shape and form this would take - whether voluntary or statutory, general principles or enforceable rules - is unclear, and the small size of the industry makes any political appetite for reform unlikely for the time being.
In the meantime, Mr de Vilder recommends that landlords should carefully check property guardian firms’ credentials. There are more than 20 companies operating in the UK and property owners need to make it clear that ‘cowboys are not welcome’, he adds.
So, what about the guardians? Is it worth it in the end? Well, it depends on the individuals involved and the reasons they decided to be guardians in the first place. ‘The price is competitive but you have to be willing to move at the drop of a hat,’ says the young woman living in central London. ‘I suppose our housemates could afford to rent, but they want to have more money. Some are saving to buy their own homes.’
Good all round
After a stock transfer from Wirral Council in 2005, 12,400-home Wirral Partnership Homes had several blocks of flats awaiting demolition or renovation.
WPH estimated it would cost £35,000 to board up the blocks and keep a security guard on watch. By contrast, using the services of property guardian firm Ad Hoc would be £7,000 less. Since 2009, WPH has used the service for about 30 flats in five high-rise and low-rise blocks, accommodating more than 60 guardians to date.
‘We were a bit sceptical at first, but it ended up working out really well,’ says Brian Simpson, chief executive of the housing association.
‘This solution was preferable to boarding up the blocks not only because it was cheaper, it also meant the homes remained in use and prevented social problems such as vandalism, drug use and squatting - a benefit for the community,’ Mr Simpson says.
As some elderly tenants were being gradually decanted from the blocks, the presence of other occupants meant they felt safer in the half-empty buildings.
Mr Simpson views property guardianship as a reasonable solution for both parties - as long as the temporary nature is explicit and occupants are dealt with fairly.
‘It is made clear from the start that it won’t be permanent and we try to give them as much as notice as possible - three or four months - before they have to leave. We want to give them as much as time as possible to plan.
‘It can help people get back on their feet,’ he adds. ‘They are often people who have just arrived or may have had a relationship break-up and private accommodation can be hard to come by in Merseyside.
‘It means we’ve managed to cater for people we wouldn’t normally be able to house.’
He gives the example of two young teachers who had moved to the area for work and needed a place to stay. Within a few months they managed to find rented accommodation and moved out.