Take Back the City ran a People's Manifesto workshop last night with a group of "live-in guardians" - people paying cheap rent to "guard" a property that a company wants to keep empty.
"Guardians" do not have tenants' rights, but do pay rent of around a third to a half of market rates. Runaway rents and house prices have contributed to an increase in the number of people living as guardians to around 4000 in the UK - the vast majority of these in London. The schemes are increasingly popular with companies who want a cheap way of preventing empty buildings being squatted.
We visited the "Chestnuts" - a group of guardians living in an old school in northeast London. Most said they really appreciated the communal lifestyle that being a guardian encouraged, as well as the low cost. Many saw their living arrangement as a matter of choice, rather than a sacrifice.
But the group were keen to point out that they had been lucky to end up living with a good group of people in a comfortable and spacious property with lots of communal space - not to mention the fact that most had been able to live there for years. Being a guardian is something of a lottery, it seems: we heard some horror stories about previous experiences of guardianship. One man told us about moving into an office block near London Bridge, only to be told after two weeks that he had to move out in a further two weeks. Others complained of harassment, fines and repeated unannounced visits from "inspectors" working for the company paid to "guard" the property. It's also worth pointing out that people with children and unemployed people are generally banned from being guardians.
Being a guardian is a precarious existence, but one that can allow a communal living arrangement more satisfying (and cheap) than that of many of London's growing army of renters.
The Chestnuts crew put forward five demands, following a lively debate:
- Rent control.
- A fairer system of taxation, including punitive taxing of anti-social behaviour like keeping properties empty.
- A free, improved and better funded education system.
- More social housing, with fairer rules on eligibility and access.
- Politics to be taught as a subject in secondary schools.