Katharine Hibbert has considerable experience of meeting London’s housing and other cost of living challenges. She wrote a book about it. In 2011, she set up a business to help others find homes they can afford. This is her first, very welcome, piece for On London. Let’s hope there will be more. Katharine tweets here.
Getting London’s empty buildings lived in by those who are otherwise priced out of our expensive city might seem a no-brainer. Boarded up properties drag down neighbourhoods, create costs and hassle for owners and are a poke in the eye for the many Londoners who are struggling to buy or rent in the capital. Property guardian companies secure buildings on behalf of their owners by placing people to live in them on temporary agreements. They currently house around 5,000 Londoners for less than market rents in residential and non-residential properties which would otherwise be empty. But they have recently come in for criticism.
A recent report by the London Assembly’s housing committee was generally positive about the concept of guardianship, highlighting the useful role guardian companies play in managing buildings and creating additional housing. However, Green Party AM Siân Berry, who chairs the committee, warned that “without more attention, the growth in guardianship could give rise to a very substandard class of rented accommodation”. She flagged concerns that some guardians were being expected to live in unpleasant, badly-managed homes.
The Guardian’s coverage of the report described a situation where thousands of people are “forced to be guardians to avert homelessness” and face “poor living conditions with almost no legal protection”. This characterisation is not borne out by the detail of the research that underpinned the report, misrepresented the legal protections that property guardians have and did not reflect my experience as founder of Dot Dot Dot, a property guardian social enterprise which has housed thousands of people in the capital and across the country since I set it up in 2011. I and six other property guardian providers wrote a letter, published in the Guardian, to say so.
However, it is certainly true that standards across our sector need to rise in order to make the most of the opportunity that empty buildings offer to provide good homes for as many Londoners as possible. The boring truth revealed by research for the report, carried out by academics at the University of York, was that property guardians are, on average, about as satisfied by their homes and the running of them as tenants in the private rented sector or in social housing. They are also saving a lot of money compared with renting privately, which is their key reason for choosing to do it.
Nearly three quarters of guardians described their interactions with the property guardian company who managed their home as positive. Around 20% were dissatisfied with the way repairs were handled – similar to the proportion of tenants in social housing and private rented sectors. None of the guardians surveyed by the academics said they had become guardians because they couldn’t afford the rent or the mortgage in their previous homes. The most common reasons for choosing this form of housing were a desire to live where jobs are (22%), the opportunity to save money (17%) and to have more space (10%). The different form of housing most guardians intended to move on to was a property they would own (22%), although most intended to continue to be guardians for the medium term.
The guardians surveyed were more likely than the average Londoner to be working (92% compared with 75% of all Londoners), but were on lower incomes – an average of £25,000 a year compared with the £32,000 average household income of those living in the private rented sector across the UK and £40,ooo in some London boroughs. However, they spent a lower average proportion of their income on housing: 37% compared with an average of 54% for London renters.
But are guardians sacrificing safety to save money? They shouldn’t be. Although the Guardian’s coverage implied that property guardians are entitled to little legal protection, in fact they have the same right to a safe home as tenants in the private rented sector. Although they can be asked to move out at 28 days’ notice, compared with two months for private sector tenants, all regulations on fire, health and safety apply equally, as a white paper commissioned from legal experts by Dot Dot Dot and six other property guardian companies last year bears out.
By suggesting otherwise, the Guardian’s coverage helps providers who shirk their obligations by muddying the water for guardians who need to complain. And poor providers do exist, as the York University research demonstrates. Although they didn’t name the companies concerned, the academics pointed out that feedback about some property guardian providers “stood out as generally more positive” but about others as “almost completely negative”.
The risk is that these negative experiences come to be seen as typical of the industry. Those of us committed to making the sector work for everyone involved need to push up standards across the board as well as focusing on how we do our own work.
I set up Dot Dot Dot because I wanted to prove that property guardianship works best when guardians are managed well and provided with good homes – satisfied guardians who have a positive relationship with their housing provider are more likely to take good care of the building they are living in, meaning that owners can be more confident that their property is safe.
But guardians’ confidence that they will be treated fairly and that their home is safe to live in should not depend on comparing the business model of one guardian company against that of another. The first step towards this is for all guardians to understand their existing housing rights and how to get them enforced.
So I welcome Siân Berry’s call to create a “level playing field” for companies by ensuring that none can ignore guardians’ rights to a good, safe home in order to cut costs. The housing committee’s recommendation that there should be more clarity about which laws that primarily relate to all tenancies protect property guardians too and that guardians should have more sources of redress when these legal rights are ignored, are also helpful.
I hope that more accountability will improve the reputation of the industry and speed its growth, bringing more buildings into use and housing more people in London and elsewhere. While filling empty properties isn’t the whole solution to the housing crisis, property guardianship can mitigate London’s high housing costs for a growing number of people. I look forward to continuing to be part of the effort to make that work for everyone.
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