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Property Guardians: (3) The reality

Property GuardianBen Reeve Lewis finishes our short series on Property Guardians by speaking to some actual guardians.  Earlier pieces by Samir and Tessa.

Living in a Property Guardian Scheme

In the past couple of weeks Samir and Tessa have looked at Property Guardians from the perspective of the ethics of it and the legal side.

To end this short study I met up with two people I know who actually live in a property guardian scheme in South London and asked them what their experiences were.

Rebecca and Sue (asked for their real names not to be used) are single women in their 30s and moved into the scheme around 3 months ago for different reasons.

Sue simply could not afford her rental costs as they kept rising beyond her means. Rebecca had stayed months in the flat she shared with her former partner but couldn’t afford the deposit and 6 week’s rent in advance to find a 1 bedroom flat on her own. Property guardians became the ideal solution that allowed her to get out.

Both work full time and rent small studio flats for £350 a month including heating and hot water.  However residents have to pay for electricity and council tax, although some of the properties in other schemes they had heard about rented for £750, cheaper than local market rents but not by a huge margin.

I asked Rebecca how she found the process of moving in, she said;

“It wasn’t in very good condition when I took it but the scheme told me I could live there rent free until I had decorated it and got it ship-shape. It took me about 3 weeks of work. That’s the difference with a normal place I suppose, you’d expect it to be in decent condition before you move in”.

Sue’s property wasn’t too bad but she said the running of the scheme isn’t very well organised:

“They have a head guardian living there that everyone is introduced too. They are tenants themselves but they act as live-in caretakers I suppose you would call them. You don’t really hear from the scheme people at all and when I was signing up it all seemed a bit casual.”

Rebecca agreed:

“They asked for employment reference and history but in reality they just gave me the keys and told me to do the work and let them know when it’s ready”

I asked them both if they knew anything about the rules that they are living under, for instance I had heard that some schemes say that you can’t stay away from the property at night.

Rebecca told me that there wasn’t a sign-up process like you would get with a council house or a decent agent. The agreement is just given to you and nothing was explained, other than to say if they were planning to stay away from the property for more than 2 nights they are supposed to tell the scheme.  But it wasn’t made clear what would happen if they didn’t.

I asked what they liked about living in the scheme and they were both enthusiastic about the atmosphere. Rebecca said;

“Cheap rent, nice community spirit there. Everyone says hello, most of the neighbours are friendly, there’s a sense of camaraderie as everyone is in a similar boat”.

I explained a little about the legal side of living in property guardian schemes, pointing out that they are really tenants but are treated as licensees and that the companies who run the schemes play fast and loose with legal processes and have effectively created their own system and regime alongside the law.

Both looked uncomfortable at this, saying they knew about it but felt that a roof over their heads that they could afford was more important to them at this point in time.  Although Rebecca and Sue were concerned that they never knew how long they would be able to stay or where they would be rehoused if forced to move.  Rebecca:

“I’ve no idea how long it will be as it is dependent on the council finding a purchaser for the development. They say they’ll rehouse you in most cases but they state it could be anywhere.

I hope to stay for a long time if I can but what if they say I have to move to Tottenham? That would be too far for me to travel to work every day and I might have to think again”

I got the impression from our chat that living in a property guardian scheme is a bit of a curate’s egg. They can live with the ad-hoc casual way that things run, being merely quirky and idiosyncratic but neither of the girls is happy with the unsettled, temporary nature of where they are currently living.

Having said that, it is affordable and there is a community spirit among the residents.

The legal side of things troubles them but their need for a roof over their heads is understandably prime concern and the low rents mean they can probably get some savings together in the time they are there to enable them to move back into the mainstream in the future.

“Yeah I am saving” said Rebecca, “But not this week. It’s my birthday” she grinned.

I share Rebecca and Sue’s opinions of property guardian schemes. Obviously my legal head is outraged and my inner TRO would like to take them on but I am also a cash strapped working tenant paying 68% of my take home pay on rent who sympathises with their problems in funding proper accommodation.

It’s an open argument really. Are these schemes legal? Mostly not.  Do they fulfil a need? Yes, most definitely. They may be disorganised but they aren’t exactly loan sharks, or the mafia. It seems to me that if people are willing to trade some of their property rights for an affordable home then that is their affair.

I can think of many arguments against my view too but for me, and I’m sure Rebecca and Sue as well are of the mind-set ‘Needs must when the devil drives’.

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Important note. If you are reading an old post, remember that the law may have changed since it was written.

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2 Responses to Property Guardians: (3) The reality

  1. Hi Tessa, This is a really interesting article. Property Guardianship is certainly on the increase at the moment, and as it is relatively new, I’m sure the legal status of these arrangements will take time to become established. In France and Holland new legislation has been introduced specifically to deal with (and encourage) property guardians. Partly as a result about 1% of the Dutch population are now property guardians and the housing vacancy rate there has fallen to the lowest level in Europe.

    Given that this is just about the only financially viable model out there at the moment for creating low cost housing without public subsidy it would be great to see us trying to encourage the best of this new industry and improve the rest. Unfortunately this is not what I read at the moment. The level of debate on this issue (your excellent article aside) is either openly hostile or clever dick lets catch them out stuff. Shelter’s advice on it is almost spitting contempt for the idea. If we were awash with viable and innovative housing models then perhaps we could afford to take that stance. Clearly we’re not. I ‘d rather see our excellent policy and legal minds consider how we can improve not rubbish this idea.

  2. I agree David, I think there should be an agreed system where people happy for a cheap, quick, albeit temporary home to meet people responsible for maintaining schemes which prevent an area from becoming an blight on the community.

    I am mindful of the massive Heygate Estate up at the Elephant & Castle, which has been empty for a few years now and looks like something from a Zombie film. Certainly when viewed from a bus in the Walworth Road.

    My concerns are twofold;
    1. That the arrangement should genuinely be a two way street in terms of the rights of occupiers and management agencies.
    2. That there is no room for future cowboy outfits to manipulate any looser legislation to hoodwink people.

    To qualify the latter point you do regularly see unscrupulous landlords claiming to be running charitable hostels when they are in fact clearly not.

    Tenancies and licences are created largely by the circumstances surrounding the dates the letting started, the status of landlord and the real life arrangements. The law on security of tenure isnt determined by what is written on the top of an occupancy agreement and therein lies the legal conundrum, that the way housing law is constructed in the UK doesn’t allow for the arbitrary creation of a different kind of occupation agreement by mutual consent.

    So drafting a new set of laws to legalise property guardianships is not going to be an easy affair.



About the post author:

Ben Reeve-Lewis

Ben is an enforcement officer for a London Local Authority, a housing law trainer, an author on housing law who writes for the Guardian & occasionally pops up wittering away on TV. He also runs Easy Law Training with Tessa & Graeme. Occasionally he sleeps. Find him on Google, and Journalisted. Any opinions expressed are Ben's personal views & don't reflect those of any organisations he may refer to.

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