A new vogue is sweeping London: Property Guardianships.

Two months ago Katrina, a friend of mine from London, was given 28 days to move out of her home before the building she lived in was sold to a new owner. Now, she’s shacked up in a spacious room, in a trendy part of central London and pays less than £100 per week.

This reversal of fortune is typical for renters living in property guardianships across the capital. Cheap prices and a desirable location come at the expense of renter’s rights, meaning that evictions are issued at short notice and people have little recourse to complain when buildings are not fit for purpose or punitive fines and expulsions are issued.

The idea is simple: guardianships approach the owners of properties which have fallen into disuse and rent them out cheaply to ‘property guardians’, like Katrina. It is framed as win-win-win for the agency, which has minimal responsibility towards renters, the guardians, who pay cheap rent, and property owners who benefit from free security until they find a permanent use for the building.

While guardianships sound good on paper I’m sceptical about forgoing the security that comes with a privately rented apartment. When Katrina was evicted she was working full-time and struggled to find new accommodation. Having secured a room with another guardianship the agency stopped replying to her emails days before she was due to move. In the end, she turned up at their main offices to demand keys to her new home in a way that could not be ignored.

Despite the uncertainty attached to her living situation, Katrina loves life as a property guardian and I’m certainly intrigued by the prospect of cheap rent and a bohemian lifestyle. While I can’t visit Katrina in person, because of the whole social distancing thing, she shows me round her new place via FaceTime and I have to admit, I’m impressed.

Formerly a disused office block, the communal living space which she shares with six friends boasts high walls, skylights, copious houseplants and more throws than you ever thought would fit in one room. In her bedroom, what was once a store cupboard is now a walk-in-wardrobe and when she’s not relaxing in her grand chamber or in the shared living space, she sunbathes on the roof.

The vibes are laid back and there is art everywhere which Katrina points out to me as she saunters past. ‘I love this piece’ she tells me, referring to a sculpture of a woman’s naked torso painted black. ‘Some squatters who lived here before us left in a hurry so we got to keep it’, she explains happily.

I cannot help but wonder what happened to the squatters. The abandoned sculpture is an ominous reminder that as property guardianships have grown in popularity, with an estimated 7,000 guardians in London alone, squatters’ rights have all but disappeared leading to a rise in homelessness.

As a result, some commentators have slammed guardianships for perpetuating housing injustice by stripping rights away from individuals who lack affordable housing options and preventing empty buildings from being repurposed as council houses or homeless shelters.

I ask Katrina, who grew up in a council house, her take on this and she’s adamant that guardianships do more good than harm. If she wasn’t living in the office space there would be no way for her to afford rent in central London near where she works. She’s also enamoured with the support-network of like-minded young professionals she’s met as a guardian.

The sense of community which Katrina describes is a major selling point pushed by the guardianship companies. Dotdotdot, for instance, one of London’s largest agencies, describes itself as a ‘social enterprise’ which offers an alternative to London’s corrupt private renters market and benefits local communities through its volunteer schemes.

I cannot escape the feeling that this setup exploits guardians. Renters are expected to complete mandatory volunteer work for 16 hours each month on top of paying rent, and providing an informal house-sitting service to the property owners. I’m also concerned to read the Covid-19 advice on Dotdotdot’s website which states volunteering is expected to continue during the lockdown.

Let’s be clear. Guardianships are businesses not charities and gaps in legislation stop licensees benefiting from the rights which apply to tenants in the private sector. A lack of accountability opens the door to poor living conditions and some tenancy licenses include gagging clauses to explicitly prohibit guardians from complaining to local authorities or property owners.

Even so, guardianships are increasingly popular and Dotdotdot’s buildings are so oversubscribed that only around 4 per cent of applications are successful. People seek out guardianships knowing the risks and these schemes should not become a scapegoat for London’s broken housing system which pushes renters to sacrifice their rights in exchange for affordable accommodation.

It therefore falls to the government to strengthen renters’ rights and close loopholes which allow property guardians to be exploited. A good place to start would be bringing guardian agencies under the jurisdiction of local authorities so that a robust complaints procedure can be instated.

The government must also ensure that property guardians are made aware of their rights. Katrina was lucky to be given 28 days’ notice ahead of being evicted from her room. All too often this courtesy is denied to property guardians because they are classed as ‘licensees’ rather than ‘tenants,’ a distinction which rests on shaky legal ground.

The government’s Covid-19 advice to renters and landlords pussyfoots around this issue which begs the question: What would happen if a building were sold during a lockdown and guardians unable to find new accommodation? Or if a guardian were expelled from their building while exhibiting symptoms?

With coronavirus likely to cause periodic lockdowns it is now more important than ever to ensure that guardians are protected against arbitrary expulsion. While there is undoubtedly a glamorous side to property guardianships — and I can see the appeal — until the flaws in the system are fixed, I think I’ll hold off on signing up.

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