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Property guardians – is this the future of renting in London?

As a reaction to (and by-product of) London’s housing crisis, there has been a rise in recent years in the number of co-living spaces and property guardian initiatives.

With Property Guardian Protection (PGP) – founded in 2016 by former City trader Scott Franklin – recently opening the doors to three of its most sought-after locations in the capital, Property Investor Today tagged along to find out more. 

The tour begins outside a large former warehouse in increasingly trendy Bethnal Green. After a short pitch from Franklin about what PGP does, we’re taken through narrow corridors and up winding stairways to the top floor of the previously derelict building, where we’re led into a large open-plan kitchen with views to the flats opposite and the street below. It’s very much a stop-gap kitchen, but it’s clean, tidy and has everything the property guardians residing here would need.

The idea behind PGP is fairly simple: it seeks out buildings that are effectively in limbo (not yet ready to be developed or renovated because of planning, financial or legal hold-ups; but still inhabitable) and transforms them into living spaces. This saves property owners considerable sums in security costs – by having people living there, there is no call for 24/7 security – and keeps the building safe from vandals, squatters, asset-stripping, architectural theft, fly-tipping, illegal raves and trespassers.

PGP doesn’t charge the owners anything; it says it makes its money entirely from the rents it charges its property guardians. Its appeal to property owners eager to swerve empty rates costs (not to mention the potential for dilapidation and loss of value) is fairly obvious, but what’s in it for the guardians?

First we meet Kevin, who works in PR and has been living in the building for over a year with his partner. His background is in the arts and he says he’s used to living and working in warehouse-like spaces. The eight or so people on this floor share one bathroom and a kitchen, while there is also a breakout room and storage space.

We next meet Lisa Canny, a singer-songwriter and harpist who moved to London from County Mayo in the west of Ireland a few years ago. She was previously living in a more conventional house-share, but wanted somewhere that would be more suitable for her unusual work hours (with all that late-night gigging and performing) and more receptive to her practising her music whenever she needed to.

While she admits that only having a one-month contract doesn’t offer much security (guardians are on a rolling 28 day license and could be asked to vacate at any time with a month’s notice if the property reaches the next stage of its development), she says ‘there always has to be some downsides’ and insists that Franklin and his team are very upfront about the situation from the start and keep their guardians regularly updated on how things are progressing.

The biggest advantage, she says, is living with like-minded people – fellow creatives, artists and musicians – and the ability to steal inspiration from her neighbours if her creative juices are running low. Before we leave her room – a bare, minimalist space that has nevertheless been made to look homely with personal photos, knick knacks, vintage furniture and an impressive array of shoes beneath a bulging clothes rail – we are treated to a private performance showcasing her impressive harp-playing, her soulful voice (even in spite of a bout of tonsillitis) and a bit of hip-hop freestyling chucked into the mix.

Before we head for our second destination we are taken round the back of the building, to garage space now repurposed as an art studio.

Property guardians – is this the future of renting in London?

Using this space is Cypriot artist and photographer Nikolas Louka, who has been living at the old warehouse for around a year and using the garage for his work. Louka, who has been in London for seven years, says ‘PGP look after you’ and finds the experience of being a property guardian more affordable than orthodox renting.

A repurposed warehouse in Clerkenwell

After a quick cab ride across London – passing through trendy Shoreditch and thriving digital hub Old Street – we arrive in Clerkenwell, a hip area loved by artists, creative firms, young professionals and musicians for its smart bars, lively clubs, indie boutiques, stylish cafes and Exmouth Market (a foodie paradise with a wide range of eateries on offer). It was also home to London’s first gastropub, The Eagle, which opened in 1991 as the first foodie boom swept across Britain.

Clerkenwell is on the doorstep of London’s historic legal district, close by to the West End and a short hop from Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Charles Dickens Museum. It’s also home to many former industrial warehouses and factories – which, going back further, would have been used as workhouses.

Property guardians – is this the future of renting in London?

We’re dropped off at one of these old warehouses, where Franklin points out that every room has internet connection (a must in this day and age, particularly for younger people) and talks about the heavy investment he’s made in all his buildings when it comes to fire safety – so vital, of course, in a post-Grenfell world. Throughout the tour we are given regular reminders of the steps taken to make the buildings as fire-safe as possible, and Franklin is very hot on compliance. According to the press handout we’re given, PGP ‘aspires to achieve the highest standards of health and safety’.

Even though PGP are merely the ‘custodians of these buildings’ – often for a year to 18 months before they reach the next stage of development – Franklin says he is eager to go above and beyond the standard compliance requirements, investing heavily in the buildings before allowing any guardians in. 

He also talks lots about community, helping like-minded people come together in unconventional spaces to create, work and live together. The aim is for more affordable living for those who desire to live in central areas. While co-living spaces such as The Collective could be criticised for being too expensive (a small en-suite room starts from £245 per week), rents in PGP buildings range from around £500 for a single inhabitant to £1,500 a month for a couple.

The rooms are generally quite large, although guardians share bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms and communal areas. PGP currently has around 18 buildings across London, with just over 200 tenants. There is a strict vetting process and a few stipulations – guardians must be in employment, they must not be students, and they must be over the age of 18. In some buildings the minimum age is 23. There is also a firm no pets and no smoking policy in place.

Affordability and a blank canvas

At the second warehouse we meet Oli, an artist who has recently returned from an exhibition in Paris. He hadn’t heard much about property guardianship before, but now shares a room with his partner, he says, for much less than what he was paying before. He is also able to live in a central location, a few minutes from the West End art gallery where he is exhibiting his work.

It’s a similar story for Jonathan Clifford, a documentary, portrait and travel photographer raised in Australia who now lives and works in London. He shares a large living space with his girlfriend, while he’s also been able to repurpose another room as his studio. Jonathan, who has been a property guardian for around four years, had been let down by a previous guardian company (asked to vacate at very short notice) and was in desperate need of somewhere to live. He says PGP came to his rescue and his dealings with them since have been exceptional.

He liked the blank canvas approach, which meant the couple were able to put their own stamp on the room, furnishing and decorating as they saw fit. While the lack of windows and natural light in this part of the building could prove claustrophobic for some, it’s certainly a bright, well-lit and creatively decorated place.

Transient renting

The slightly anarchic, offbeat nature of property guardianship is highlighted by a disco laundry room (complete with a cut-out of Dot Cotton in suspenders in the corner!) and the very artsy vibes of the rooms we visit. Property guardianship seems to be aimed mostly at creatives; those who like the idea of flexible renting and not being tied to one place, of being able to mix with like-minded individuals. In the second building, the guardians say they have a WhatsApp group to keep in contact, discuss matters and arrange impromptu drinks in people’s rooms.

It’s a transient renting experience for transient renters – so it’s no surprise that most of the guardians are artists, singer-songwriters, actors, actresses and creatives, eager for flexible living space to reflect their movable, often unpredictable professions. Some might call it communes for the millennial generation, but there is no sense of the guardians wanting to go off-grid or live outside the system – they just want a renting experience in a central location without breaking the bank.

Property guardians – is this the future of renting in London?

Property guardianship, like co-living, is still a very niche marketplace – and won’t come close to solving the housing crisis on its own – but for property owners eager to avoid hefty security costs and people who want a different renting experience in unique spaces, its appeal is obvious.

According to a recent London Assembly Housing Committee report, there are between 5,000 and 7,000 property guardians in the UK. What started as an anti-squatting measure in the Netherlands in the 1990s has been growing in London since the start of this decade, with PGP just one of many companies getting in on the act. 

A new 'gold standard'

The tour ends at a third building, where five or six property guardians reside. The wide open space around which the guardians live is today hosting an art exhibition – put on by the guardians themselves – and a DJ set by Blaine from indie rock band Mystery Jets. There’s also Clerkenwell beer, falafel buns and a convivial atmosphere.

Franklin, who is a likeable companion and tour guide throughout, is clearly very passionate about his new venture. After 25 years in the banking industry, working as a trader for leading investment banks such as Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch, he decided to set up his own business, looking towards East London’s creative hub for inspiration. With PGP, he aims to set a ‘new gold standard’ for the guardian market, doing things better and more professionally than other companies.

He believes it’s a rising trend, too. “Sadiq Khan is only building a portion of the homes needed,” Franklin said. “Demand is high for something different and I can see property guardianship increasing five-fold in the coming years.”

While he admits it is first and foremost a business, he's also keen to create mini communities across London and is on first name terms with many of the guardians. As we tour the various buildings, it’s clear to see the strong relationships Scott and his staff have struck up with the people living there.

Even though the arrangement in no way offers long-term stability or a sense of permanence, the guardians know what they’re getting into and seem content to live with the idea that they’re likely to be moved on within a year or so.      

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