Anti-squat: Living as a property guardian.

Different people's experiences of the guardian scheme can vary immensely.
Different people's experiences of the guardian scheme can vary immensely.

The property guardian scheme, or anti-squat as it is often referred to as, first began to establish itself in The Netherlands in the 1990s, the first company to do so was Ad Hoc. Property Guardians first came to the UK in 2001. One of the best known and largest agencies is Camelot, who started in 1993.

On Camelot’s site they present the property guardian scheme as follows: “Camelot offers those looking for cheap accommodation the chance to live in a variety of properties across the UK at a cost of just a third of the national average. Property owners turn to us to manage their vacant properties, looking to deter squatters and avoid vandalism. This in turn gives Camelot access to some of the UK’s most exciting and sought after buildings. ”

This is how the majority of agencies advertise the scheme, an affordable housing solution for those who want to live in exciting and unusual buildings throughout the country. And for many, this is the case. Property guardianship offers people lower than market price rent in buildings that are disused and need occupation, with a side order of great stories and bragging rights about how your bedroom is a ventilation shaft on a disused airfield. Sounds ideal right? It can be, but as with most things, you’d be wise to look at the fine print before rushing into that old mental ward with nothing but your sleeping bag and a phone full of Instagram filters.

A few things to be aware of :

  1. You are a guardian, not a tenant, therefore you do not have the rights of a tenant.
  2. You are not allowed parties or big gatherings, and no under 18s.
  3. If you plan to leave the property for more than 48 hours, you must obtain permission to do so.
  4. Quality of sanitation and amenities may vary.
  5. You can be kicked out with as little as two weeks notice.

The following video is Camelot’s orientation for new property guardians. A cold and sterile introduction to your limited rights as a guardian.

“It’s as certain as anyone can be, you know, you might get run over by a bus tomorrow so enjoy the moment.”It’s cheaper for property owners to employ property guardians to occupy their buildings, rather than paying for 24 hour security. It’s a win-win-win, you get cheap rent, the property owner gets security, and the agency gets paid. It also means that the property is occupied, therefore it is kept up (in most cases) to a livable standard which can not only keep it looking nice, but may also reduce costs when it comes to refurbishment. Any wise landowner understands the need to protect their assets, buildings left derelict can attract an array of problems, from petty vandalism, to theft of valuable materials such as copper piping. In many cities, it doesn’t take long for an empty building to become squatted, which can cause huge amounts of hassle in terms of legal battles.

Peter Greenfield lives in a disused dementia care unit near Bristol.
Peter Greenfield lives in a disused dementia care unit near Bristol.

Peter Greenfield, 56, is the guitarist in the horror rock band Jimmy Ringus. He currently live in a disused dementia care unit on the outskirts of Bristol. Now in his third year at the unit, Peter has nothing but praise for the scheme: “It’s just a tonne more fun than a normal home. You look at the kind of space that most people live in, the money they pay compared to this, it’s incredible what you get.”“We had to arm ourselves with random weapons just in case. I chose the pool cue and one of our friends we were living with was a handyman so he kept his hammer by his bed.”

A mid-life divorce is what led Peter to moving into this property. After he sold his marital home he was renting a flat that was costing him roughly £1,000 per month. He decided it was too ridiculous and began searching for alternatives: “This came up and it’s kind of the best of both worlds, I wanted a bit more space and obviously living in the community is great, and you just can’t beat this value for money. It’s just so good.”

This has been a recurring theme that has surfaced time and time again with the people I have met. It’s often not purely a financial decision to go down an alternative route. Often these options offer many extra benefits, such as the chance to live in a community, something that people often lose when they move into a street where they don’t know half of their neighbours. “I’ve always felt that human beings aren’t meant to live alone or in couples in small little boxes. I’m lucky I live with great people. I think humans are tribal animals, they’re meant to live together.” Says Peter.

But with property guardianship you often have to make some trade-offs in terms of security. Most tenancy agreements don’t offer the guardians more than a month’s eviction notice, this is due to the fact that they are always temporary residents, occupying the property whilst the owner waits to either sell or redevelop it. I asked Peter if this constant risk of eviction affects him: “It’s as certain as anyone can be, you know, you might get run over by a bus tomorrow so enjoy the moment.”

Ed outside of the old Rosemary lane Pub. Credit - Ed Moyse.
Ed outside of the old Rosemary lane Pub. Credit – Ed Moyse.

Not all guardians have had as much luck as Peter though. A few years ago Ed Moyse, 26, had just settled into a beautiful old family home in Belsize Park, North-west-London, when him and his housemates were turfed out: “Rent was only £300 a month and I had a massive room, it was brilliant. We were told the property was likely to be around for a couple of months but in reality it was a couple of weeks. ”

Ed spent two weeks couchsurfing at friends houses whilst his group waited to be relocated. After this they were moved to Rosemary Lane, an old pub located just south of Shoreditch. At first they were excited about the prospect of living in a pub, they saw it as an exciting adventure. There has previously been, what Ed described as ‘a group of violent anarchists,’ living in the pub, who had been forcibly evicted by the police. The guardian agency rushed Ed and his friends in as soon as they could, to deter the anarchists from coming back. Essentially they took on the role of security guard as well as resident: “We had to arm ourselves with random weapons just in case. I chose the pool cue and one of our friends we were living with was a handyman so he kept his hammer by his bed. We’d make sure we locked the door but it was very unlikely that anything was going to happen.”

The above photos were kindly supplied by Will Edgecombe, one of the other guardians that Ed lived with.

The pub was a bit run down and trashed, but Ed and his friends looked past that, and made the best of their situation: “It was pretty awesome, we had this pub with a whole bar and tonnes of random of paraphernalia that came with it like shopping trolleys and for some reason and a bench press, so we had our own little gym within the pub almost.”

One thing they didn’t count on was sharing their new home with a large family of rats. Ed had his first run in with them on his second day, when one ran in front of him as he got home and jumped into the sofa. At night they could hear what they described as a ‘small army of rats’ running around the pub. Ed recalls one particular time when one rat got a little too close for comfort: “Whilst I was going to the loo one night I had a rat run over my foot while I was wearing flip flops, that was pretty nasty.”

The group figured they would just leave the property, but instead the agency sent in pest control to no avail. Poison was laid out but these rats were smart, and were not touching it. After discovering 15 rats in their kitchen late one night after a party, they decided to take matters into their own hands and try to poison them with a sack of sweet potatoes, having read online that they were poisonous to rats. Over the course of the next few weeks they found rats dying all across the pub. In one particular case Ed had to finish one off himself: “I never killed anything before, so there was a moment of moral dillema. I did what I thought was best and smashed him with a breeze block in a bag.”

E.T.C. Dee runs the blog 'DON'T LIVE AS A PROPERTY GUARDIAN.'
E.T.C. Dee runs the blog ‘DON’T LIVE AS A PROPERTY GUARDIAN.’

“Squatter. No question. You have way more rights and politically it makes more sense.”Overall Ed said he enjoyed his time in the scheme: “The guardian scheme was ideal in terms of being flexible enough to accommodate us and cheap enough so that we could live centrally in London.”

It does make one question the state of our housing situation in the UK, when people are willing to deal with vermin and incredibly strict guidelines just in order to live in the capital. There is a school of though that antisquat has a negative impact on society and does not address the real problems. E.T.C. Dee is an academic from The Netherlands who runs the blog, Don’t live as a property guardian. He takes a strong stance against the scheme, arguing that it is capitalism recommodifying squatting: “It doesn’t have to be like this, with a middleman making profit out of the need for housing.”

Dee says he would rather be a squatter than a guardian: “Squatter. No question. You have way more rights and politically it makes more sense.”

He feels the duty of housing should fall to local council instead of private organisations: “Councils and housing corporations are mandated to house people so why don’t they do up buildings and then rent them out cheaply? People need to rent and have security, not live in an antisquat where they might be kicked out on 24 hours notice and the PG company can walk in at any time. That’s not right.”

With rent costs having risen so much over the decade that guardian agencies have been running, some people are now wondering if the benefits outway the drawbacks of having minimal legal rights, no guarantee of tenancy and sometimes squalid conditions. Perhaps the golden-era of the movement is over.


 

Related

The UK’s ‘Property Guardians’ Live in a World of Constant Anxiety VICE

Dream homes for guardian angelsThe Independent

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