Opinion: Why we should follow the French by considering guardianship as a way to fill empty homes with those in housing need
Christmas is the time of year when the misery of homelessness becomes apparent to everyone. Many homeless people are in this position as rising property prices and rents across London, combined with the housing shortage, has made affordable accommodation in decent locations a mere pipe dream for many young and low-paid people working in the capital.
Yet there are over 279,000 homes across London and Southern England and over 20,000 commercial properties in London that have been empty for six months or more; an estimated 19.4m square feet of vacant commercial space in the capital alone. These empty properties cost their owners maintenance, security and tax payments, yet remain unused. This is not acceptable given the huge demand for low-cost housing.
This is one reason why guardianship, a concept started in France in 1993, is now taking off in the UK. It allows young people to pay low rents – often as low as 25 per cent of market rent – to look after disused buildings, which can act as a valuable solution to the housing shortage.
My business, Lowe Guardians, is one of many taking the management of empty buildings off of landlords and occupying them with young professionals, key workers and creatives who can live in them on a temporary below-market-cost lettings basis as ‘property guardians’.
This also works for the landlord, protecting them against squatters and vandalism at little to no cost to them, depending on which guardianship company they use. Business rates can also be substantially mitigated by reclassifying a property’s use to domestic, as local councils have already been given new powers to triple tax rates on properties left vacant for five to 10 years, while the Housing Minister has had requests from local authorities in London to seize unused empty properties to use as social housing.
When guardianship was first established there were negative stories on both sides of the arrangement of properties being damaged and guardians living in low-cost yet poor conditions. To combat these issues the Property Guardian Providers Association (PGPA), welcomed by the House of Lords in a recent debate, has been established by the UK’s leading property guardian providers (Live-in Guardians; VPS Guardian Services; LOWE; Ad Hoc; Camelot Europe; Dex; Guardians of London), which speaks for 80 per cent of the guardian market in this country.
With this new organisation working on behalf of the guardian providers, they aim to set out the health, safety and legal status for shorthold tenants engaging in property guardianship schemes – recently outlined in a White Paper – and to provide property owners with access to trustworthy and reliable tenants.
Last year the PGPA’s members received over 32,000 applications from would-be guardians, however, there were fewer than 10,000 units in available properties. The organisation has since calculated that there are enough vacant properties to provide capacity for 100,000 people to live as property guardians across the UK, many of them in top-tier urban locations.
With this new association and more clarity on the rights of both guardians and guardian providers, we would like to spread the word and see more owners of vacant property across London and the UK considering guardianship to help young people on low incomes to find affordable accommodation.