By Mara Ferreri, Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona, Gloria Dawson, Independent researcher, and Alexander Vasudevan, University of Nottingham
On 27 September 2016 a group of squatters occupied a vacant building in Shoreditch, East London. While not unusual in itself, the event was widely reported in local and national media because, with calculated irony, the occupiers had reclaimed the former headquarters of an international property security company, Camelot Europe. The company, with offices in six cities in the United Kingdom, specialises in a little-known yet growing form of property security through live-in guardians, also known as property guardianship. The squatters, who renamed the place ‘Camesquat’, hoped that the occupations would help “highlight the issues around property guardianship, and the rise in this new, precarious form of housing, first introduced to the UK by Camelot themselves” (SQUASH, 2016). So what are the issues with property guardianship and why do they matter for understanding contemporary cities?
Property guardianship (PG) is a relatively new form of insecure urban dwelling, existing in the grey area between informal occupation, the security industry, and housing. PG was first developed in the Netherlands by “anti-kraak” (anti-squat) companies in the 1990s and has since spread to other European countries, including France, Belgium, Germany and Ireland. Our paper ‘Living precariously: property guardianship and the flexible city’ is the first in-depth geographical study of PG in the UK that combines a study of the sector with an analysis of the lived experiences of guardians. Our research found that while until the mid-2000s the PG market in the UK had been dominated by large companies like Camelot, since the global financial crisis of 2007/2008 the sector has seen something of a boom. At least 22 out of 32 companies currently offering PG were founded after 2009 and growth in the sector is expected to continue. A high proportion of these companies operate mainly or exclusively in London, because of both a highly dynamic property market and high housing demand at a time of a double crisis of supply and affordability (Dorling, 2014).
As widely promoted by PG companies, the appeal to guardians is that of enjoying housing below market rent and often in central and ‘unusual’ locations, such as office blocks or civic buildings. However, guardians are bound by license agreements (not tenancies) that stipulate a number of restrictions on residents’ use of the premises, such as hosting friends overnight or having dependants, as well as a shorter notice period than a standard Assured Short-hold Tenancy agreement (AST). Crucially, as licensees, guardians do not enjoy exclusive possession of the buildings they inhabit (Hunter and Peaker, 2012) and are exposed to unannounced inspections and other forms of surveillance, and to the constant threat of having their licence terminated, leading to eviction. These conditions make living as a property guardian ambivalent and controversial, requiring a nuanced and qualitative approach to guardians’ rationales and experiences.
In our paper, we analyse these experiences through the narratives of guardians and their everyday precarious geographies. In-depth interviews with thirty-two long-term guardians in London reveal that choosing to live through PG can bring economic and professional advantages in a competitive job market. Guardians, who are often university educated, were able to change careers, afford unpaid or low-paid entry-level jobs or engage in further education. At the same time, everyday housing insecurity compounded by precarious work, exposed deep anxieties about the realities of ‘flexible urban living’, with many experiencing high levels of stress and the fear of being unable to leave a self-reinforcing cycle of precarity. In fact, critiques of the scheme are often met by guardians with resignation toward the lack of more secure alternatives, pointing to a much wider cultural and political acceptance of work and housing insecurity.
While the scheme so far only affects a minority of city dwellers, we argue that the logic underlying PG needs to be understood as an example of an emerging precarious subjectivity that has become normalised in response to wider dynamics of work and life precarisation in the global North. This normalization occurs alongside wider socio-economic shifts in urban centres. In London, in particular, guardians have been used to secure ‘unusual’ property in the context of a wider restructuring of the welfare state. For example, PG has been deployed by local government to secure council estates slated for demolition or privatisation (London Assembly, 2015), a process that further exacerbates the crisis of truly affordable housing in the capital. Our study of property guardianship shows the city as a site of intensified insecurity where uncertain work, life and housing co-constitute and reinforce new forms of urban precarity. While occupations such as Camesquat are useful in highlighting the iniquities that underpin PG, a geographical approach enables us to bring together a political economy critique with an understanding of the subjective dimension of the normalization of work and life insecurity in contemporary cities.
About the authors: Mara Ferreri is an urban researcher working at the intersection of human geography, politics and cultural theory, working at the Institut de Govern i Polítiques Públiques, Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona, Bellaterra (Barcelona), Spain; Gloria Dawson is an Independent Researcher, based in Leeds; and Alexander Vasudevan is Associate Professor Cultural and Historical Geography at the University of Nottingham.
Dorling, D. (2014). All that is solid: How the great housing disaster defines our times, and what we can do about it. London: Penguin UK.
Ferreri, M., Dawson, G. and Vasudevan, A. (2016), Living precariously: property guardianship and the flexible city. Trans Inst Br Geogr. doi:10.1111/tran.12162
Hunter, C. and Peaker, G. (2012) Who guards the guardians, Journal of Housing Law 297, 16.
London Assembly (2015) Knock it Down or Do it Up? The challenge of estate regeneration. London: Greater London Authority.
SQUASH (Squatters Action for Secure Homes) (2016) Camesquat Press Release – 3 October 2016.
Taylor D 2016 London protesters occupy former HQ of property management firm, The Guardian Online 27 September 2016