Property guardians: a solution to the UK’s housing crisis?
The UK is in the midst of a housing crisis. Average private rents have soaredto at least 40% of income in London, social housing tenants are being decanted out of their homes and communities to make way for profit-driven redevelopments and 22,000 homes sit empty in London alone.
Given the depth of the crisis, it’s unsurprising that property guardianships are booming. Guardians pay a licence fee to occupy part of a building, to secure it and prevent damage. Most buildings are not housing, and the guardian is not a tenant, meaning they have few legal rights.
In 2014, market leader Camelot property management grew by 39%. Rex Duis, who is researching the schemes for tenants’ rights group Generation Rent, estimates that Camelot is one of about 28 companies employing guardians in London. Guardians are also present in smaller numbers in all other major UK cities. Research by security firm Orbis estimated last year that there are about 4,000 guardians in the UK.
This expansion has come with a call for regulation from tenants’ rights groups and a preemptive push to professionalise by many guardian companies. In some cases, this has involved companies rebranding and emphasising the affordable housing aspect of their model, and their ability to place guardians in buildings that would otherwise be empty.
“[Property Guardianship] offers huge benefits to those who can’t get on to the property ladder and are desperately looking for affordable housing in London,” says Gavin Handman, head of operations as Guardians of London. “Property guardian schemes could and should become a long-term part of a healthy UK housing system.”
Not everyone is as positive about the potential of property guardianship. Gloria Dawson wrote her master’s thesis on guardian schemes at Leeds University, and has been researching the industry for years. “[The expansion of property guardianship] represents a worrying trend towards temporariness and precariousness in housing contracts”, says Dawson, pointing out that guardians can be evicted with two weeks’ notice, although in practice it can be even fewer, and are “fairly unequivocally told by guardian companies that they don’t have any rights”.
When Camelot sprung up in the Netherlands in the early 1990s, it described itself as an anti-squat service. Helping people to live cheaply was a happy side effect, but the primary intention was to provide a security service for money. Camelot tells me it is still “primarily a security solution”. Almost all the other companies say the same thing when pushed.
Given this, pitching themselves as an affordable accommodation provider smacks of opportunism: a way to boost business in a market where people need homes.
The fact that security firms are currently allowed to offer accommodation without considering the implications of being housing providers is a concern. “We want to see property guardianship regulated properly to protect tenants and to ensure it’s not just a way to exploit people escaping the pressure cooker of the housing market,” says director Alex Hilton.
Duis is working on this at the moment. “One of my aims is to introduce a basic level of care and protection for guardians, and lobby MPs and local councils to adopt it,” he explains.
But Dawson is sceptical of the effectiveness of regulation: “I don’t think that will make [property guardianship] a more positive option for a lot of people who need to be housed,” she says. She sees limitations to a model in which the guardian is legally not a tenant, and so not entitled to tenants’ rights.
Dawson does agree that, at the moment, many guardians aren’t troubled by the insecurity of guardianship and benefit from the flexibility the schemes offer. But there is an argument, made by Dutch campaign group Bond Precaire Woonvormen (Union of Precarious Tenants), among others, that by offering affordability and flexibility in exchange for a loss of tenants’ rights, property guardianships are putting a price on these rights and undermining them across the board. This could become a greater concern if property guardian schemes were incorporated further into the housing system and people began to see them as their only option: some people would effectively become unable to afford tenants’ rights.