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Image: Steve Beech / Time Out

Inside the murky world of property guardianships

They offer below-market rents in desirable locations – but there are plenty of downsides too. Time Out investigates why more and more people are living in deserted buildings

Chiara Wilkinson
Written by
Chiara Wilkinson

For three years, Louise Mason lived in a disused catholic school in Euston, central London. ‘It was massive,’ she says. ‘I shared it with 23 other people, most of them worked in the arts, we had a classroom each and all cooked in the home economics room. My bedroom was in the chemistry lab, the gas taps were still working and there were leftover chemicals. Someone else slept in the assembly hall – she took up rollerblading, made the space into a painting studio, and put her bed on the stage. It was a really fun time.’

Mason lived in a guardianship. From old colleges and NHS buildings to derelict pubs, listed churches and even morgues, thousands of people in the UK are living in these sorts of properties, providing free, live-in security for vacant buildings. It saves the owners tens of thousands of pounds on hiring a security firm, and for guardians, it’s generally more affordable to pay a monthly ‘licence fee’ than to rent conventionally. In fact, the fees are usually at least 30 percent less than private-market rates. There’s a reason for that: guardians have little to no rights compared to tenants, the properties aren’t designed to live in (meaning they might not have safe electrics or gas supplies) and guardians can be asked to leave at any time with 28 days’ notice. And because ordinary housing standards do not apply, it’s all perfectly legal.

It’s by no means a stable living situation, but you can see why guardianships are so appealing for people wanting to save cash or find temporary digs. To live in the school, which was managed by VPS Guardians, Mason paid £500 per month with all bills included – which is virtually unheard of in central London. The properties themselves vary widely, but often offer unusually large spaces in unusual buildings which can double as studio or workspaces. As a result, many guardianships offer ready-made shared communities of like-minded, creative people – and offer a similar style of communal living to shared warehouses. ‘I think it takes a certain kind of person to live in a guardianship,’ says Mason. ‘You have to be practical – I never expected anybody to fix anything. But I think if you've got very, very low expectations, it’s brilliant.’

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The concept of guardianships started in the Netherlands in the 1990s, and the practice is now pretty commonplace there. According to the UK government, there are an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 people living as property guardians in our country today, but the exact number is unknown. And now, with the crisis in the private-renting sector bringing with it a tornado of inflated rents, bidding wars and poor-quality properties, the number of people applying to be guardians has risen significantly.

The Property Guardian Providers Association (PGPA) expects that the number of applications to become a property guardian will rise from around 32,000 in 2021 to 50,000 this year. ‘It’s a pretty crazy time at the moment,’ says Tim Lowe, founder of Lowe Guardians, which manages properties in London, Brighton, Bournemouth and other cities. According to Lowe, applications for their accommodation have doubled over the past three months. So could property guardianships be a solution to the UK’s rental crisis – or are they too good to be true?  

The deal is that if you have to shit in a bag and take it to a rubbish bin, you don’t complain

The thing is, not everyone had an experience as positive as Mason. While not all guardianship companies have a bad track record, many guardians will put up with shoddy living conditions for cheaper rent. ‘Maintenance is often not carried out, because it’s kind of an implicit agreement,’ says Alasdair Mcclenahan, co-founder of non-profit Justice for Tenants. ‘The deal is that if you have to shit in a bag and take it to a rubbish bin, you don’t complain because you’re paying £400 a month in Zone 2 in London.’ For guardianship firms, it can mean big money. ‘There are people who are desperate for affordable accommodation,’ says Mcclenahan. ‘The profit that guardianships make [off the back of that] is extremely lucrative.’

Andrew* lives in a guardianship managed by Sentry Guardians. The problems became obvious as soon as he arrived. ‘It started off with a pack of lies about free internet and running water,’ he says. ‘I’ve developed a hernia from carrying a heavy 18-litre tub of water to our kitchen’s water tank and now need surgery, with nothing but excuses from my guardianship. It has been disgusting and awful.’

Low rent isn’t always guaranteed either. Sarah* lives in a property in south-east London which is also managed by Sentry. She told me how she signed a licence agreement to pay £560 per month in rent, which increased just a month later by 20 percent. When Time Out reached out to Sentry for comment, a spokesperson said they could ‘confirm there is running water in [Andrew’s] property and there always has been since the day guardians moved in,’ and that, as for Sarah’s property, they ‘have had an increase as we all have in our properties due to the rise in utilities costs.’

Sarah previously lived in a guardianship in an old school under DEX Property Management. She complained to the company about a fellow guardian using violent and abusive language towards her. They also allegedly entered her room without permission. When Sarah tested positive for Covid-19 in January of this year, she received no help from her fellow guardians and was forced to make a trip to the shops in protective gear to buy paracetamol and food (she even informed the police, she says, as self-isolation rules were still in place).

‘The next day I got evicted for having Covid despite wearing FFP2 masks at all times and informing [housemates] when I needed to go to the bathroom or kitchen, and cleaning after myself,’ she says. ‘I explained the situation to my flatmates and the company, and the next day I got evicted. Twenty-eight days later I had to move. From my experience, [guardianship] companies do not care about your health.’

Time Out reached out to DEX Guardians for comment, who said that her complaints were fully investigated internally in line with their policy and her notice was served in line with licence agreement terms, which were signed prior to moving into the property and had ‘absolutely nothing to do with her having Covid’. DEX also said that they issued a court order when she refused to vacate the property and were granted procession and a money order for outstanding license fees and legal costs.

I’ve developed a hernia from carrying a 18-litre tub of water to our kitchen’s tank and now I need surgery 

It’s likely that these sorts of stories are just the tip of the iceberg: according to Justice for Tenants, if a guardian complains and opens a case with a company, claims will often be settled by payment and the signing of a non-disclosure agreement. ‘Every settlement with a guardianship company has involved that [an NDA]. We’ve assisted in around 30 guardianship situations, the majority of which have settled,’ Mcclenahan says. ‘We get a lot more inquiries about guardianships year on year, which shows many more properties falling into the guardianship strand.’ 

I viewed a guardianship property – an empty nursing home in Homerton, London – earlier this year, to explore my options while I waited to find out if my current landlord was going to raise my rent. Rooms with shared living spaces were originally advertised as costing between £450 and £750, with studio flats priced at £850. All bills were included. By the time I viewed the property, the studio had increased to £900 a month and the cheapest room was now £500 (I ended up staying in my current flat). According to Lowe, the price hike was due to an issue with the gas meter, but part of me felt like it came at a suspiciously convenient time when there was such a scramble for flats in the area.

Not everyone will have negative experiences with property guardianships. ‘I think there’s a lot of crap, but there are still some amazing ones,’ says Mason, who moved out of her guardianship earlier this year. ‘I know some people who have had them for ten years – you have to be lucky.’

Rex Duis lived in guardianships in London for 12 years, with varied experiences. ‘The scheme is definitely a good one when run properly by the right people,’ says Duis, who created a charter of recommended best practice for guardianships in 2016 and encouraged the industry to form its own self-regulatory body. ‘I had some brilliant rooms and made a few friends. For people trapped on low incomes in a rent trap, the cheaper properties provide an opportunity to save a bit of money on rent to put towards other things in life.’

But as long as the sector exists in its current form, the model will be exploited. In June, gal-dem reported how property guardians and the London Renters Union are taking the company Dot Dot Dot to court over rent hikes of more than 100 percent and unsafe living conditions, while calling for a boycott of the firm. ‘All properties need basic minimum legal standards for human beings to live in, to protect the most marginalised in society,’ says Mcclenahan. ‘If we allow those people to be exploited more, then they will be. It will have far reaching effects on their physical health, their mental health, any children or dependents that they have living with them.’

There are 238,000 vacant properties in the UK, while 270,000 people are facing homelessness

According to Lowe, 40 percent of people who apply to become guardians don’t get put on their viewing list. ‘We have to turn them away because we see them being vulnerable, or in need of longer-term housing needs,’ says Lowe. ‘The dream scenario is you take a room with us and within 18 months [you leave], whenever you’ve either saved up enough money to get a deposit, or you find a group of friends and you move into the private-rented sector.’

It’s clear that the sector is shrouded in mystery. The most recent headline government report published in September 2021 stated that ‘very little is known about property guardianships in the UK – there are no national statistics, and local authorities do not collect data about the sector.’ It also said that reports of poor property conditions were widespread, even though the PGPA was set up in 2018 to promote best practice. In official guidance, guardianships are not even recommended by the government as being suitable for housing.

So, what’s the solution? According to the most recent government council taxbase, there are 238,306 properties in England alone that have been left vacant for more than six months. Meanwhile, around 270,000 people are facing homelessness in the UK. It makes sense that empty buildings could be part of the solution to the current housing crisis. But then again, they shouldn’t if they’re not brought up to liveable conditions. 

Unless more regulation is brought in, certain companies are going to continue to exploit housing needs for profit. Councils need to clamp down on poor living conditions and guardianship firms need to stump up cash to bring properties up to a standard. If not, the sector will continue to grow into a wild west – one where no one really knows what’s going on or to what extreme it’s headed. 

*Not their real names

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