I have discovered that over 1,000 ‘property guardians’ are being charged to live in precarious conditions in empty public buildings owned by councils across London.
New figures from borough councils show that more than 200 empty public buildings are being occupied in this way.
The use of guardians is not essential. In contrast to councils, the Mayor of London has told me that City Hall avoids these arrangements, with no GLA Group empty properties (including those owned by the Met Police, London Fire Brigade and Transport for London) housing any guardians this year.
Our researcher who worked on the project says:
“Even the better of the property guardian companies have their tenants on very short term contracts with fewer rights, and treat them as essentially unpaid security guards. With the worst companies, the overcrowding and rents charged amount to straight-up exploitation.
“Councils should not become second-class landlords by allowing their properties to be used to exploit people let down by the housing crisis. Property guardians should be treated like any other tenant, with proper health and safety rules, notice periods and protection from exploitation.”
The data released today show that up to 20 people per property are being charged to live in council-owned buildings, far more than would be needed to provide a simple presence to deter squatting.
I say that councils should look at more creative uses for public buildings. Community and cultural organisations are crying out for short term spaces for their projects, and would happily take care of these buildings at no cost. The many people forming new co-operative housing groups could also make much better use of temporarily empty buildings while they search for permanent homes.
Most councils enter into zero-fee contracts, and across London in 2016 have released data to show they have paid property guardian companies just £24,500 in total. It is the people paying to live in the buildings who provide profits for the companies.
Property guardian companies have been accused of taking advantage of the lack of affordable homes to charge people nearly market levels of rent to live in often sub-standard, unregulated properties. Used in place of conventional security guards, the growth of the property guardian phenomenon has caused concern among campaigners.
In the London Assembly I have also been calling for a change in the law to better protect people and to classify the fees charged as rent. I asked the Mayor in July to call for clarification of the law to allow buildings used by property guardian companies to be classified as Houses of Multiple Occupation and allow minimum standards of health and safety to be enforced.