London Housing Crisis: Squatting Becomes More Precarious, While Guardianships Boom

by Housing Action Southwark & Lambeth

15 September 2016

Nico Hogg/Flickr

With rents becoming increasingly hard to afford in London, people unable to pay the high rents of the private rented sector are having to look elsewhere for housing. Two of the main solutions for low- and no-income people are two forms of housing that are often in conflict – squatting and property guardianships.

Whereas squatting has long been a solution whereby people have housed themselves in the excesses of the wealthy or in the waste of local governance, property guardianships arise when owners of empty property get private companies to profit massively from offering just-below market rents with very insecure tenancies. However, with squatting becoming more difficult, the relative security of property guardianships has produced a boom in the industry – with rents rising as a result.

Housing Action Southwark & Lambeth has used freedom of information requests to London councils to find out what is happening with London’s empty buildings. Although this only covers buildings owned by local authorities, from anecdotal evidence a lot of the findings seem to fit with experiences of privately owned buildings. The only thing to take into account is that these figures are probably a strong underestimate as only 19 councils out of 32 London boroughs answered at least half the information requested, and the councils with the highest levels of squatting (according to anecdotal evidence) either refused or failed to answer the request.

1. Squats vs. guardians.

Over the last five years London councils have had exactly the same amount of non-residential buildings squatted (currently the only fully legal form of squatting) as they have had protected with guardianships, which in total is 85 buildings each, and there was surprisingly little overlap – only five individual buildings being both squatted and protected in their empty lifetime. Although three councils refused to use guardianships, no councils protect their empty buildings in such a way as to fully prevent squatting, demonstrating that although squatting is increasingly repressed there are enough empty buildings and enough homeless people that it is happening just as often as buildings are being protected with live-in guardians.

Although in numbers they are equal, in longevity the repressive laws and hardened attitudes have made squatting far more precarious than property guardianship. On average, councils kept guardians in buildings for 18 months whereas squats only lasted five weeks on average, with the shortest being only a day. Until as recently as 2012 – though more commonly in the 70s – councils would let squatters remain in buildings until they were needed, regularly for years or even decades. Now councils would prefer to pay private companies to exploit desperate tenants whilst doing everything they can to turf out homeless people from unused buildings as quickly as possible.

2. Council crackdowns on squatting.

With squats now lasting such little time, councils have obviously become much more savvy since the days of local governments losing buildings through adverse possession because they were not even aware they owned them (leading to this great BBC legal advice for owners). To get squatters out in five weeks councils are using a mixture of immediate eviction and the most harmful eviction methods.

Although no recorded arrests were made at council-owned squats, one in four were evicted in a matter of days with no civil proceedings. This will be a mixture of ‘locking out’ (if squatters are not constantly present), threatening the squatters or illegally evicting them. Whichever exact method is used it immediately makes people homeless, potentially locks people away from their few possessions, and gives them no chance to make further housing arrangements before being kicked out onto the street.

In the 73% of evictions that involved civil court proceedings, a third of these proceedings were for interim possession orders (IPOs). IPOs make it a criminal offence to stay in the building more than 24 hours after the order is served, with a maximum sentence of six months in prison if convicted. It is shameful that councils are so often happy to criminalise homeless people just to empty a building quickly.

In a quarter of civil cases high court bailiffs were chosen over county court bailiffs. Not only do high court bailiffs cost more and tend to be available quicker than county court bailiffs, they also give no notice of eviction, usually arriving early in the morning. The fact that over 70% of evictions are either instant or enacted through more expensive, quicker civil methods is why squats last such little time – meaning the lives of homeless people are made more difficult and traumatic. The contrast with guardianships – which councils are happy to have occupied for 18 months on average – shows that these extreme methods for kicking squatters out within a month of entering are not undertaken through necessity, but to punish people for having no other option.

3. All about the money.

The data we gathered suggests rates of squatting have been constant over the last five years, where guardianships increased between 2011 and 2012 from about five starting per year to more than ten. This could partly be down to austerity providing more empty council-owned buildings. However around this time guardian companies started to offer payments or charge nothing to building owners for letting them rent out the buildings, in contrast to previous arrangements when most companies charged owners for the ‘service’.

For example in May 2013 Sutton council – which has had 12 guardianships in the last five years – changed from Camelot to Adhoc, and with that from paying a company to getting an income. Anecdotal evidence suggests some of the higher rents are with guardian companies that pay the building owners, which means councils are happily pushing up rents on these precarious tenancies for the sake of small amounts of cash which don’t even cover what they spend to evict squatters.

From what councils declared (and few were clear about what they spent and earned through squatting and guardianships), over the last five years nearly £100k was spent evicting squatters, £44.5k spent securing buildings with guardianships, and only £27.5k earned through renting out empty commercial buildings to guardians – meaning councils recorded losses of at least £117k through evicting and renting out empty commercial buildings.

4. Austerity – from council services to poor quality housing.

Over half the 85 non-residential council buildings in which guardianships have occurred were recorded as previously having been used for public services. These 43 buildings included five libraries, seven care homes, nine schools, seven leisure centres or outdoor activity centres, four hostels and two youth centres. As austerity has cut council budgets, one effect has been that local governments have turned council services into poor quality housing run for private profit.

Our information requests show that squatting continues through heavy repression, even though homeless people are barely able to stay in council owned buildings for more than a month due to immediate eviction or especially quick and violent court procedures. As this crackdown against homeless people continues, councils are shutting down public services (and sometimes getting paid) to let companies run precarious, poor quality housing in them. This shows very clearly how London councils, whether Labour or Conservative, are playing an active role in London’s housing crisis.

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