Two years ago, Elliott Hines had a problem -he could not afford to live in London.
‘The most basic flat cost £1,200 a month to rent, which meant I’d have to share,’ says Elliott, 35, a visitor from Chicago who had found a post as a religious education teacher.
‘And sharing meant one small bedroom and no living room.’
Property guardianship is an arrangement whereby individuals are granted accommodation at about a third of the market rate in return for keeping the place in good condition
Luckily for Elliott he came across an advertisement in the small ads of a paper.
It spoke about becoming a ‘guardian’ with four others, of the recently decommissioned National Westminster Bank in London’s Edgware Road at a far more affordable £575 a month, including bills.
‘At first I thought this was a crazy idea,’ says Elliott. ‘But I gave it a go and pretty soon I found it was a great way to live.
‘Being a guardian helped me get my finances sorted while living near the heart of London and meeting new people.’
The scheme Elliott had signed up to was run by Tim Lowe, of Lowe Guardians, who started his company after a six-month investigation for his last employers, estate agency Knight Frank.
‘I discovered that there was this enormous problem with young people being unable to find affordable housing,’ says Tim, 33.
‘And at the same time, there were hundreds of empty buildings that needed someone responsible to look after them.
‘I put the two together and came up with the guardianship idea.’
Tim’s property guardianship is a contractual arrangement whereby individuals are granted temporary accommodation at about a third of the market rate.
They agree to keep the place in good condition and, in return, Tim’s maintenance team makes the premises habitable, installing kitchens and bathrooms and meeting all building regulations.
The guardians are legally ‘licensees’ not tenants, which means they have limited legal protection.
They can be required to move out at short notice and the agreement between licensee and Lowe is based, to an extent, on mutual trust and goodwill.
Some stay in a property for four years, but more typical are stays of one to 18 months. Licensees, most of whom are key workers, young professionals or freelancers from the arts world, know the terms before they enter an agreement.
Being young, they usually travel light and are not looking for long-term security. However, the company also runs a re-housing policy to ensure a licensee isn’t suddenly rendered homeless.
It is worth noting that not all property guardianship companies are similarly scrupulous in their dealings.
Last month, Camelot Europe, which has now gone into administration, was found guilty of failing to licence a House of Multiple Occupation and 14 breaches of HMO management regulations relating to a former rectory in Colchester.
The residents shared one kitchen, bathrooms with no hot water and a clogged toilet. There was a faulty fire alarm, blocked fire escapes and sealed doors.
Around the same time, this paper reported on how Global Guardians were advertising derelict properties in London for the same extortionate rates as standard private rents.
One was a ‘horrible disused factory’ in Rainham, another, a single room in a prefab hut with a grubby floor and dated wallpaper peeling off the walls.
Tim advises anyone new to guardianships to take care.
‘Research the company and question someone in a responsible position,’ he says. ‘Make sure you understand the terms of your contract.
Speak to a few guardians and always ask how quickly the company responds to maintenance issues.’
Lowe Guardians, which Tim established four years ago, now has scores of properties and about 700 young people on its books, mainly in London and the South of England.
Tim could hardly have chosen a better time to set up the scheme: more town centre shops close every day and over a third of UK bank branches have shut since 2015.
London’s Ovalhouse theatre is perhaps the company’s most ambitious project. Located at Kennington Oval in Lambeth, the former theatre is home to ten young singers, actors, writers and musicians.
The lovely old theatre has been turned into a recording studio and rehearsal space; there are seven bedrooms in what used to be the backstage changing rooms and it has a new kitchen and showers.
‘I’m sure this is an idea that would work countrywide,’ says Tim, who launched a charitable foundation linked to the company last year.
‘Licensees have been able to save for a deposit on their own place having lived cheaply with us.
‘There’s also a social side to the scheme; some have met as guardians and later got married. It’s more than a business.’