WE TALK TO TWO PEOPLE LIVING IN AN OLD POLICE STATION ABOUT THE PROS AND CONS OF BEING PROPERTY GUARDIANS
ON the surface, being a property guardian sounds like a sweet deal.
You pay massively reduced rent to live in an empty building, which could be something cool like a former pub or cinema, and in doing so keep it free from squatters.
In the mid 2000s it seemed to be the holy grail of the housing market.
Not only for Londoners looking to pay less rent, but especially for artists and creatives who were not able to afford large spaces to work in under normal circumstances.
Guardians lived charmed existences, enjoying roomy central London homes for practically pennies, but then the horror stories started to emerge – tales of no running water, rat infestations and 24-hour eviction notices put a lot of people off going down the property guardian route.
Being in the dark about one’s rights and at risk of exploitation does not sound like most people’s cup of tea, but according to Greater London Assembly research, there are up to 7,000 property guardians currently living in the UK, most of them in the capital.
We met guardians living at Chelsea’s former police station to find out why some Londoners choose to make their homes in places where they are permanently at risk of being moved on. A blue poster reading “Lowe Guardians in occupation” is the only clue Chelsea’s former police station is currently occupied by 42 live-in guardians.
The block was sold for more than £40 million by Metropolitan Police in 2015. Number 2 Lucan Place is now owned by a private United Arab Emirates-based fund whose plans to develop it into luxury flats were rejected by Kensington and Chelsea Council at the end of September. Until developers secure planning permission it is likely the guardians will continue to live there.
We were given a behind the scenes tour of the station which has been given a shabby-chic makeover by the 40-something creatives who have temporarily made it their home.
■■Bogdan Nacuta, 34 Product manager for a biometrics company, pays £580 a month
Bogdan was born in Romania, grew up in Italy and moved to the UK seven years ago to study after which he decided to make London his permanent home. He has lived at the police station for just over a year having been a property guardian three times before, but his experiences weren’t always good.
He said: “I was on my once a year holiday in Asia and got an email telling us the property we were guarding was sold and that we had two weeks to move out. I was due back in London 10 days after the notification and I was starting a new job, so basically I had four days to move out and get myself sorted before starting my new job. I managed to sort something out last minute, but it was a nasty shock.
Asked why he continued to live as a property guardian when his first time ended badly, Bogdan said: “I enjoy the flexibility and not being tied into any silly contracts. I also like that Lowe’s CEO, Tim, came to meet me in person. I think having been a property guardian himself he has a good idea of what makes a good experience.
“This space is unlike any other place I’ve lived before and I’ve lived in lots of other places. There’s a community here unlike anywhere I’ve been so far.”
The former booking-in room where police used to check-in people they had arrested is now used by the guardians as a living room. It has a pool table, table football and even a projector to watch films, but comfy sofas, framed pop art and cheery strings of bunting do little to conceal the feel of a former police station.
Cells surround the living room which are now used for storage an austere metal panel hangs on the wall.
The guardians have done a lot to make the room feel lived-in, but behind the Ikea furniture and cheery blow-up animals it is clear it was never intended as a social space.
■■Clare Stiles, 35 Freelance interior designer, pays £620 a month
Clare was among the first seven to enter Chelsea Police Station as a property guardian in 2016 after she saw the ad on SpareRoom. It is the first place she has lived as a property guardian but now she says she would not live any other way.
She said: “There’s so many things I like about living here but the best thing is the automatic, massive friendship group you get when you move in. We go out together, some of us have just been on holiday together – it’s just a really really good place to be.
“Even if I could afford to live elsewhere I’d still want to live as a guardian, I wouldn’t necessarily choose to live in Chelsea because it’s a bubble, but I’d still choose to live like this.”
According to Claire, her fellow guardians range from 23 to 40 years-old, most of them working in the creative industries and many of them freelancing. She added: “Not many people commute far to work from here and a lot of them are freelancers which means we’re around to keep an eye on the property in the day.”
There are 15 showers between 42 property guardians at the station, one of which was once used by prisoners.
Clare said that while she prefers not to use the inmate shower, there were other guardians who were less squeamish and did.
The bathrooms are reminiscent of those university halls, a bit dingy and dank with a whiff of damp they are spread out across the building’s four floors. According to Clare having to queue for a shower on occasion is her least favourite thing about living at the station, but she maintains those moments are rare. While some of the toilets and showers were put in by Lowe before the guardians moved in, most of them were existing bathrooms used by coppers and prisoners.
Every property guardian has to sign a licence agreement, which is a like a tenancy agreement but means you can be given 28 days notice to vacate the property at any time.
The Lowe guardians we met seemed happy with their lot, but grim accounts of guardians elsewhere being taken for a ride by agencies who failed to treat them as paying tenants prompted the Greater London Assembly’s Housing Committee to confront Mayor Sadiq Khan about the matter in a paper titled “Protecting London’s Property Guardians.”
The report, published in February 2018, concluded that while there are perks to being a property guardian, “legal grey areas and a lack of information and standards means the relationship between property guardians and the companies controlling their homes is currently unbalanced”.
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Bogdan Nacuta in his room at Chelsea’s former police station (below)