If you’re a young creative on the hunt for affordable housing in London, you might be a “guardian”–not a tenant–in your next residence.
“There are increasing pressures to come up with affordable rental solutions,” says Tim Lowe, founder of Lowe Guardians, a startup that provides below-market housing in vacant buildings. His service matches property owners of vacant buildings with young creatives who are hunting for space to live. The average cost per month? About 400 GBP ($520 based on current exchange rates) all utilities included, which is about half of the market rate for renters. Here’s the catch: If you move in, you’re essentially the site’s caretaker.
Like most major cities, London is struggling with escalating rents. Property guardianship–originally a model developed in the Netherlands–has emerged as a market to help alleviate the crisis. Because of London’s strict planning code, commercial buildings often sit vacant while their owners shore up the necessary permits (or capital) to begin renovations. Owners have to pay extra taxes on empty buildings, and empty buildings are beacons for vandals and squatters. After squatters have inhabited a building for 10 years, they can claim possession. This has led some property owners to hire guardians who live in their buildings. Building owners pay less tax, don’t have to hire security, protect themselves from squatters, and collect rent. Guardians get cheaper places to live.
While this seems like a win-win situation, it’s highly controversial from a rights standpoint. Because guardians are not tenants, they have virtually no rights and can be kicked out whenever. Additionally, conditions in these buildings are often unsafe and dilapidated, and quality of life is low.
Lowe Guardians solves some of these problems by essentially upscaling what it means to be a guardian. Its target audience for guardians are young creatives that must be between 21 and 35, employed, cannot have children, and are “socially responsible” (meaning they won’t throw raves in the spaces). Lowe Guardians also ensures a standard of living in the properties. Each guardian is guaranteed a locked bedroom, running water, Wi-Fi, and electricity. There is also access to a kitchen and bathroom, though those amenities might be shared. The buildings also have to comply with safety regulations and fire code.
In a single property, Lowes has housed as many as 62 people and as few as 3. Lowes also pays for a cleaning service and advertises “amazing communal spaces and events” on its site. This isn’t squatting in a derelict factory and warming your hands over a trash-can fire–it’s more like the WeWork of guardianship. Licensees are assured of a certain level of service and quality of life if they use this service.
Since its founding in March 2016, Lowes has housed over 200 guardians. Ninety percent of the properties are commercial space and include offices, a former bar, a police station, a warehouse, a nursing home, and even some residential spaces. Even though these are not zoned for residential use, there is a loophole in British law that allows for live-in security. The security duties are actually fairly minimal–just ensuring that the doors are all locked. There’s no patrolling. The presence of people is deemed a deterrent for squatters, and the licensing agreement legally establishes occupancy.
“In the U.K.’s point of view, we are occupying on short-term license agreements as a security system,” Lowe says. The agreements are essentially on a month-to-month basis, and property owners must give 28 days notice before asking guardians to move out. Lowes uses the properties free of charge, and guardians pay Lowes their monthly fee directly.
So far, the response has been mostly positive, Lowe says. “The guardians like living in unique buildings and they live centrally as well,” Tim Lowe says. “They save a lot of money and form organic communities–it’s a lifestyle choice.”
The self-financed company is still young, and Lowe is still working on profitability. One of the biggest expenses has been outfitting the properties to meet the company’s standards, which is a major unrecoverable expense since their work is ripped out once the owners retake their property. He worked with the design firm Studio Bark to create a transportable, prototype living pod that can easily be moved in and out of properties. The idea is to make them DIY so that handy guardians can build them on their own in exchange for a free month of rent.
But eventually Lowe would like to expand into building permanent affordable housing. “We definitely don’t think [guardianship] is the long-term solution, but it definitely helps,” Lowe says. “It opens up the imagination for what can be done with empty space and [London has] a big problem with vacant buildings.”
While Lowe Guardians only operates in London and does not plan to expand to other cities at the time being, its business model could scale to other cities. If American cities adopted the same live-in security loophole, they might have a short-term fix for affordable housing while they develop long-term plans to address the housing crisis.