The Independent London Newspaper
24th May 2017

Empty home schemes: As the costs go up, property guardians ask 'where are our rights?'

    The Agar Grove Estate

    Published: 28 April, 2016
    By ELLA JESSEL

    LIVING as custodians of former pubs, empty offices or in the twilight zones of council high-rises awaiting demolition, Camden’s property guardians are something of a hidden population.

    Acting as live-in security guards to deter squatters from moving into empty properties, 152 guardians – mostly students and those in creative industries – pay to be housed in the borough’s council-owned properties alone.  

    The schemes have been lauded as an innovative solution to London’s housing crisis: property owners are afforded peace of mind, security firms receive a healthy income stream and the guardians get cheap accommodation in central locations. It seems everyone wins.

    But warnings have emerged that those who sign up to be guardians are beginning to be short-changed: the costs are going up, inflated by London’s sky-rocketing private rental market, but no new residential rights are coming their way.

    In the past licence fees were so low that many were happy to forgo their legal status as tenants and live in buildings that often fail to meet decent living standards. But on the Agar Grove estate in Camden Town alone there are 100 guardians living in “void” flats, paying on average of £530 a month per room in licence fees and bills, while at the same time facing the risk of being moved out at short notice.

    Camden Council has a contract with Vacant Property Security (VPS), which was renewed last November, through which it receives an income of around £60,000 per year, as well as council tax payments charged to the guardians by VPS.

    Rules in VPS contracts forbid guardians in Camden from submitting planning objections or contacting the council, and most are unwilling to talk to the press for fear of recriminations.

    In the Lulworth Tower on the Agar Grove estate, guardians claim they were told the higher-than-average licence fees reflected the fact it was a “long-term opportunity” of between three and six years. But a new 18-month maximum rule on regeneration sites, brought in with the new contract, means the guardians have to leave in June.

    At a tenants meeting to discuss changes to government housing policy – organised by the council earlier this month – an experienced and newly-pregnant property guardian said VPS had issued her with a 28-day notice after she informed them she would be away from the property during the bank holiday at the end of May. 

    “We can be kicked out at any time because we don’t have rights – we have licences instead of tenancy rights,” she said. “We don’t have any rights, but surely we have human rights. As a Labour council they should do more, they should get involved with this and regulate these companies that operate through loopholes in the law.” Town Hall housing chief Councillor Pat Callaghan said: “If this person does not wish to take up VPS’s offers to be a guardian of an alternative property, they can get in touch with us to discuss their housing options.”

    While admitting property guardianship is “not a secure tenancy” and therefore is not appropriate for many people, the council insists its agreement with VPS protects guardians “in a range of ways”. 

    Properties are required to be of good standard and the council is able to specify occupancy levels and ensure licence fees are reasonable, it says.

    “Guardians accept a licence from VPS to occupy the property on a temporary basis – a maximum of 18 months – and benefit from low cost housing through a reduced licence fee,” said Cllr Callaghan. “The council also benefits by not having to pay security firms high fees to look after a property while it awaits regeneration.”

    But tenants groups such as the Camden Association of Street Properties (CASP) and the Camden Federation of Private Tenants (CFPT) say the council must provide better regulation of rights. 

    “The only losers are the victims of this housing crisis, people who stand very little chance of ever being offered a permanent and secure home,” said Petra Dando from CASP, adding: “The fact it’s happening on Camden estates in a borough that prides itself on standing up to rogue landlords, is quite simply shocking.”

    A VPS spokesman said: “We make clear to all of our guardians that guardianship is a temporary arrangement, prior to them taking up guardianship.”

    Comments

    Living as a guardian

    I've lived with number of guardian company's and in my view and the different experiences I have had, VPS beat the others hands down. The comment about the licence fee increasing by £70, you are obviously a couple as the increase was £35 per guardian. I think your being a bit harsh and you obviously don't understand the concept of living as a property guardian. VPS you have my backing and there are a large number of guardians here at lulworth house who share my view.

    you obviously must work on

    you obviously must work on vps office since no other guardians defend all the increases of rent without reasons every now and then, more than once a year, and new rules of having to move out after 18 months... leaving someone vulnerable in the street is pretty harsh when all the guardian companies tend to overlook things at their convenience and help if they want...

    Guardians

    How long will this "loop hole" be allowed to be exploited?

    continuous rent increases

    what a joke man. Now rent will increase even more as they just notified us council tax will be more expensive...and they will charge extra for the months of April and May from the 1st of June without previous notice, afterwards rent with council tax included will be more expensive than £535.... They don't ask us if we can afford it!!
    Additionally we need to pay electricity/gas and internet! This isn't a good deal anymore since is becoming as expensive as renting privately but without the luxury of having tenancy rights.... considering leaving Lulworth and VPS for good, tired of any excuses to raise our license, they new 18 months rule that came from nowhere..the last increase was 70 quid per flat in December... I bet they kicked that woman out for being pregnant as perhaps isn't the safest option to be a guardian in that state but seems a bit heartless, most guardians have travelled and they haven't been sent notices to move out...

    Short term accommodation

    Why doesn't the council itself house people in these flats on a short term basis? That would save a lot of the money that the council spends on B&B accommodation.

    What?

    Have you ever lived next door to one of these guardians as a tenant awaiting demolition/decanting?

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