Lots of people wanting a cheap place to rent; lots of buildings empty for varying periods. In the early 1990s a Dutch company called Camelot set itself up to put the two together and the notion of ‘property guardians’ or ‘anti-squatters’ went mainstream. Property guardians pay a lower amount than market rent to inhabit spaces within buildings, ostensibly to protect them from vandalism, theft or squatting (In the Netherlands, this was explicitly tied to the total criminalisation of squatting in 2010). The property owner usually also pays the property guardian company to manage it.
Guardians must not have children, or be receiving welfare benefits, are subject to strict rules which ban guests without prior consent, or any gatherings, and they must be willing to move at two weeks’ notice. In the UK, around 20 organisations are offering this service; the market is dominated by 2 Dutch-based international companies, Camelot and Ad Hoc. Clients include private sector organisations and developers, and to a lesser extent local authorities and housing associations.
Despite assurances by companies that the legal relationship between the company, the owner and the guardian is clear and that the owner retains full control, the legal rights of guardians as dwellers are somewhat unclear. As licensees rather than tenants, they are not automatically subject to housing law, and don’t have the ‘exclusive occupation’ that guarantees tenants’ privacy, or the assurance of a month’s notice to vacate. However a recent law article has suggested that in practice, guardianship can be understood as a form of occupancy covered by legislation protecting people from eviction and hazardous living conditions.
The sector is only subject to voluntary regulation. As most properties concerned are commercial/business premises rather than housing, guardian companies can and do put guardians in very basic conditions. Legally this only has to have running water, sanitation and a food preparation area. Guardians may have to make repairs and adjustments to the properties. In this regard, and in their role as alternatives to security guarding, the situation resembles unpaid labour. Unlike tenants, they do not have exclusive possession of the property, meaning that the company can enter and monitor the condition of the property, fining or even evicting the guardians if they see fit.
Although property guardianship is a marginal form of dwelling in the UK (probably no more than 4000 guardians, compared to an estimated 20,000 squatters), it has grown sharply in the last five years and the opportunities for growth to continue – increasing empty commercial property, high demand for housing which is commensurate to pay – are present. It is appealing to individuals looking for housing partly because it exists in a continuum of increasingly temporary, conditional, stratified and unaffordable housing forms – whatever sector you live in. The ‘trade-off’ of reduced comfort and security in exchange for lower ‘rent’ is a choice many guardians are able to make; but it occurs in a wider system of narrowing housing choice and security for everyone.