Tough cell

WE TALK TO TWO PEO­PLE LIV­ING IN AN OLD PO­LICE STA­TION ABOUT THE PROS AND CONS OF BE­ING PROP­ERTY GUARDIANS

Ruislip & Eastcote & Northwood Gazette - - Feature - By FRED­ER­ICA MILLER fred­er­[email protected]­plc.com @Fred­diAMiller

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”.

To read the full ar­ti­cle, go to www. my­lon­don.news.

PHO­TOS: DAR­REN PEPE

Bog­dan Na­cuta in his room at Chelsea’s for­mer po­lice sta­tion (be­low)

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