Channel 4’s comedy series Crashing is halfway through and, apart from some excruciating sex scenes, the laughs are a bit sparse. Nevertheless, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s series breaks new territory by being the first fictional representation of property guardianship on our screens.
Property guardians become licensees (not tenants) to a third-party company which enters into agreements with landlords to secure empty buildings, ostensibly from squatting and vandalism. There are around 30 companies offering property guardians in the UK and the scheme originated in the Netherlands over 20 years ago, where it became extremely widespread.
Guardians are just one group of people with a very particular experience of the crisis of housing cost and availability in the UK. Unsurprisingly, a light comedy series doesn’t delve into issues of rent, legal frameworks and work-life struggles too deeply, but using the series as a starting point, here are five things that develop what Crashing hints at about property guardianship, housing and temporary use:
1. Property guardianship can be a good deal at first, but the downsides are numerous.
Obviously the main draw for property guardianship is the fact that it’s cheaper than privately renting (although in London, sometimes not much cheaper). But it’s very restrictive. Contracts always ban children and pets, gatherings, candles, smoking and restrict visitors and use of the building. They also allow for entry into the property by the company, owner or contractors without notice at any time. After this, there is also no guarantee a building will be clean, damp-free or warm, and many guardians have to put in time, energy and money to make a place habitable.
Like many landlords, guardian companies can be remote and unresponsive, but the guardian situation is made more complex by the number of people with responsibilities for the building. The only way for most people to make this kind of restricted living situation work is by breaking all the rules, which the housemates of Crashing continuously do. But getting caught risks an eviction, or at least a fine. Some guardians can’t shoulder that risk. Property guardianship flourishes only because there’s such an awful and inadequate private and social rented sector; otherwise it would be very niche indeed.
2. Despite its drawbacks, guardianship is going mainstream.
The range of people and the size of the building depicted in Crashing are not unusual, although these days there would probably be a lot more than six guardians in a huge hospital, as the maximum profit is extracted by the guardian company.
Property guardianship started getting popular in about 2008-09; I’d estimate that from around 3000 in 2012, there are now around 6000 guardians in the UK. As the series shows, guardians aren’t all precarious creative workers. While the main character, Lulu, is spinning like a compass and thrilled to lay her mattress in an ex-operating theatre; others (like Fred and Kate) are holding down full-time jobs. Kate and Anthony are professionals saving up for a mortgage, but it’s more likely that guardians are saving up just to get on the rental ladder.
Freelance creative students and full-time postgraduate students often benefit a lot from guardianship, but it’s a lot trickier for full-time workers or even just those with a fixed workplace, and guardian companies increasingly demand people who are employed, with a regular income. Anecdotally, guardians are increasingly likely to be full-time non-home workers, often ‘key workers’ in medicine, education and law. On the supply side, large-scale social housing ‘regeneration’, especially in London, provides an (often long-term) temporary space for new precarious guardian tenants, while social tenants and leaseholders are ‘decanted’ to distant, inappropriate and expensive housing.
3. Property guardianship isn’t just about housing.
Estate regeneration is only part of it. In Crashing, the setting of a hospital is apt: large-scale private property development on former medical premises is common ground for guardianship. Property guardianship is intimately linked to cuts to the public sector and the declining availability of social care. Local authorities are getting rid of amenity buildings such as day centres and libraries, which as well as depriving people of important public services and community space, also sustains a population of precarious licensees in barely-adequate buildings.
Property guardianship can also function as a sort of ‘tax avoidance’ scheme; commercial property can be reclassified as being in domestic use, making it eligible for far cheaper business rates than it was when empty. Property owners profit, guardian companies profit and guardians are told they should be grateful for ‘cheap rent’.
4. Most private tenants don’t know when their housing situation is illegal…
In my research with guardians, most of them have little idea of their rights as guardians or tenants – perhaps not surprising when guardians are firmly told by companies that their contracts are not tenancy agreements. Recently, 150 guardians lost their home after it was found that no planning permission had been given for that many people to live in a development site (they were told it was because guardians were smoking cannabis).
Moreover, although a handful of court cases and some negative publicity has meant that most (though not all) companies now have 28-day notice periods, in practice guardians are still asked to leave at less notice than this. As well as being very inconvenient, this is actually usually illegal under the Protection from Eviction Act. Unfortunately, a guardian will probably have to go to court to prove it.
5 …but for tenants and licensees rights are hard to come by.
There is some legal aid available to get free legal advice, but you need time and energy to find a solicitor. Retaliatory evictions for complaining about breaches of contract by landlords are rising, and while organisations like Shelter, Generation Rent and Citizens’ Advice do sterling work advising people on their housing rights, there aren’t many resources out there specifically for guardians. A briefing by Property Guardian Research is a start at helping guardians specifically know their rights. But knowing your rights is one thing; organising and fighting for them – especially in the vicious rental market of London (and increasingly Bristol, Brighton, York, Manchester and others) – is quite another. It looks like Crashing will reflect a good deal of the inadequacies of contemporary urban renting for a while yet.
Photos: Gloria Dawson; Channel 4
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