These people need homes, these homes need people: Dot Dot Dot and the housing crisis

At Dot Dot Dot, we would like to live in a world where no one needed to be a property guardian – one where everyone had access to affordable, pleasant housing where they could stay as long as they liked or move whenever they chose, close to their work, family and friends.

This situation has rarely, if ever, existed in London, and it certainly doesn’t exist today. Right now, housing in Britain, and especially London and the South East, is in crisis. Buying is out of reach for most, rents have never been higher and waiting lists for social housing are endless.

The consequences of the failure of our housing system are everywhere. Families are moved to new towns far from their roots, vulnerable people stay endlessly in temporary accommodation, those on low wages rent shacks in back gardens, and the housing benefit bill spirals. The situation fuels distrust of migrants, single mothers, and anyone else perceived as jumping the endless queue. It blights people’s lives, forcing them to work long hours, to postpone having children, to commute for hours, or to take on crippling mortgages.

Housing is one of the most serious problems we face as a country, and the issue isn’t going away. Too few new homes are being built, salaries are stagnating, and demand just keeps on rising. Noise is beginning to be made about it, with big organisations like Shelter and the National Housing Federation and grassroots groups like Hackney Renters and Focus E15 campaigning for change. Housing will be high on the agenda at the 2015 general election and during the 2016 London Mayoral campaign, but lobbying and protest are needed to get it the attention it deserves.

This is the context that Dot Dot Dot is working in, and we are glad to add our voices to all of those calling for systemic change. Until that change comes, though, our mission to mitigate the housing crisis for as many people as we can – this blog post sets out what we’re doing and why, and then addresses some specific criticisms of the property guardian model expressed on left-wing blogs over the last few months.

We are well aware that being a property guardian has downsides – the people we house have less security of tenure than they would in other forms of accommodation, because they are licensees not tenants, so can be asked to move out at shorter notice, and have no right to fight eviction. We expect them to move into the places we offer swiftly, and their choice of home is limited by what we have available. The places that we can give them are usually unfurnished, and often need some TLC – a few hours with mops, dusters and brooms, or paint over tired wallpaper.

Getting a home with us is not like walking into an estate agent’s office and specifying the postcode and number of bedrooms, and being shown a range of freshly painted flats from which you can choose – a Victorian conversion, a mid-century modern concrete icon, or clean, new-build simplicity.

However, the other big difference is the price-tag. That kind of choice is realistically only available at the moment to the very wealthy – and even Conservative MPs and the Governor of the Bank of England find it hard to cover London’s rents at the moment. For many, renting in the private sector means choosing between bad options – between overcrowded, badly maintained, inconveniently located homes, where the rent still takes up a huge chunk of tenants’ pay.

This is why guardians come to us. Because our guardians help us to take good care of homes while they are empty pending refurbishment, demolition or sale, we’re able to offer places to live for between £35 and £75 a week – often a quarter of what the equivalent home would cost in the private rented sector.

We’re able to do this because we’re delivering a service that landlords want – the best way to keep property safe and in good condition is to have reliable residents living in it, keeping it aired and warm, with water running through the pipes, and with someone there to spot repairs that are needed before they cause serious damage. Keeping buildings lived in deters crime and anti-social behaviour at the property itself and in the surrounding area – empty homes with overgrown gardens and boarded up windows are natural targets for metal thieves and vandals, and can quickly make a whole neighbourhood feel neglected and dangerous.

However, landlords don’t choose to use property guardians when they have other options for filling their buildings. Placing guardians generates no revenue for the landlord, and can cost them money – albeit far less than alternative forms of security. So the only places we are offered, as a property guardian company, are those where there is no longer any possibility of placing tenants. This is usually because the length of time a property will be available for is too short or too unpredictable for a tenancy agreement to be legally viable – the minimum legal term for an assured shorthold tenancy is six months, and tenants must be given two months’ notice and can drag out the eviction process if they choose by forcing the landlord to take them to court.

It is entirely appropriate that tenants should have such protections – and at Dot Dot Dot we would like to see far more legal protection for tenants. However, the more rights a tenant has, the less flexibility there is for landlords – so where they need to set a date for work to start or a sale to take place, they may not be able to rent to tenants any more. Often that date is delayed, sometimes repeatedly, but the lack of certainty still makes tenancies impossible. This is when property guardians make sense – when the alternative would be for the property to be boarded up and empty, lived in by no one, blighting the lives of other residents nearby.

Empty homes are a nightmare for everyone. Obviously, they’re a catastrophic waste. But they’re also expensive for landlords, ugly for neighbours, and a magnet for crime and vandalism. The lack of residents means fewer customers for neighbourhood shops and less footfall on local streets, resulting in an unsafe, unfriendly feeling.

So we’re very glad that our work lets us get empty homes lived in – not only does this allow us to give our guardians cheap accommodation, it also lets neighbourhoods and landlords avoid the problems that empty homes cause.

But as a social enterprise, at Dot Dot Dot we want to do more than that. We were set up because we thought that there were two big ways in which other property guardian companies were missing a trick – from the point of view of making the world a better place, and from the point of view of doing good business.

Firstly, we want to raise standards in the industry. It’s clear that some property guardian companies out there are not taking good care of their guardians – and not living up to the promises they make to landlords, either. We have seen big differences between the services to landlords that some guardian companies promise, and what they deliver, in terms of vetting of guardians and devoting staff time to managing properties.

Guardians are not consistently treated well. We have heard of guardians living in buildings which are not in habitable condition – without drinkable water in the taps or safe fire exits, for instance. We have heard of guardians forced to move out at hours’ notice and unfairly deprived of their deposits.

It’s not just unethical to treat guardians like this, it’s often actually illegal or unlawful. Guardian companies may get away with it because they have more muscle and money than guardians themselves, but quite apart from being just plain wrong, all this seems like a bad basis for a business model – not a way to build positive, long-term relationships with landlords and with guardians. We don’t do it, and we never will.

Secondly, Dot Dot Dot exists because we believe that it’s possible to do something positive with empty property, not just avoid a negative by sticking warm bodies in void buildings to keep an eye on them and protect them from crime and dereliction.

Unfortunately, we can’t achieve a positive social impact by housing those in the most desperate need. The nature of property guardianship makes it impossible to place vulnerable people – families with kids can’t uproot themselves when given 28 days’ notice to leave, and people who are recovering from chaos in their lives need support rather than the responsibility of looking after an empty home.

So since we’re only able to house resilient, reliable, flexible people, we choose to house the people who may be cash-poor but who would like to use their time and energy to help others who are even more in need of support. Some of our guardians rescue people drowning in the Thames with the RNLI, some answer the phone for The Samaritans. Some befriend elderly people, some mentor kids. Some paint murals, some plant bulbs. Our city would be a harder, less friendly, less safe place without the amazing work they do, and whether or not Dot Dot Dot was there to help them our guardians – like many others – would be out there doing this work anyway alongside working hard to keep their heads above water financially.

Our goal is to reduce our guardians’ cost of living, and provide them with support, encouragement and a peer group of others who share their motivations in order to make it easier and more fun to carry on volunteering and perhaps to do even more. Because we are excited about our guardians’ voluntary work and we share their commitment to making a difference, we are even more motivated to make sure that their experience of being a property guardian is as good as it can be. We hope that this makes being a guardian with us more than just a way of getting a very cheap place to live – though we make sure it’s that too. We want to offer people a home that’s managed by a respectful and considerate organisation, to a highly professional standard, with clear expectations set on both sides – what we will do for guardians, and what we expect from them in return. Doubtless we sometimes get it wrong, but we are doing our best.

In the four years we’ve been working, we’ve seen how effective our model can be. We’ve seen how much difference it makes to neighbourhoods to have void properties lived in rather than boarded up. We’ve seen that offering a better standard of service allows us to attract excellent guardians, which means that we can do a better job for landlords and neighbourhoods too. And we know that we have helped many of our guardians to do what they wanted to do in terms of giving their time and making a difference.

So we believe strongly in the work we do – and we hope that this explanation of the problems we’re trying to mitigate, and our approach to doing so, respond to opinions that have been expressed on left-wing blogs recently about the relationship of property guardianship to the housing crisis.

Writing for Vice, Philip Kleinfeld criticises property guardian companies for failing to take good care of their guardians, giving examples of situations where guardians have been placed in buildings which weren’t fit to inhabit. As described above, we agree that guardians deserve to be treated well, and we work hard to do so. We go beyond the demands made on us by the law, and we would welcome a strengthening of regulation to enforce the standards we subscribe to anyway.

None of our guardians have ever been asked to live in a place which our team would not be willing to move into ourselves. Where a flat is safe to live in but in a tatty state, so cleaning or painting is definitely needed before it is homely, we reduce our fees to reflect this – we find that, given the choice, guardians would rather pay less and spend a bit of time sorting things out for themselves than pay more and have us use a handy-person, and it’s far better that this work should be done so that the home can be lived in, rather than that it should sit empty for months or years because the floor needed scrubbing. For some, this kind of work is a necessary evil to get a cheap home, for others it’s an opportunity to be able to project a bit of identity onto their living space – an opportunity few get in rented housing, where a spot of blue-tac can cost you your deposit.

Kleinfeld also makes a criticism aired by Charlotte England on OpenDemocracy and on the LRB blog, and by Lauren Van Schaik Smith in the London Student, that guardian companies force other more deserving people from their homes, and support gentrification. We reject this criticism. As discussed above, the properties lived in by our or any other property guardian company would not be offered to tenants if guardians weren’t in them. They would sit empty. We believe this is a bad outcome for everyone. So regardless of what you think of the overall projects – and in our opinions many of them are good and necessary, and will see sub-standard housing replaced with better quality and larger numbers of new homes – it is surely better that the houses should be lived in for as long as possible before works can take place.

Even if you object to all regeneration schemes, it is simply not the case that property guardian companies enable them. The schemes would be going ahead regardless of our work, and if we didn’t exist, the void flats would be secured using security guards, metal sheets on doors and window, or by being comprehensively stripped out to make them uninhabitable. This is still the most common way for void flats to be secured, and – as discussed above – we believe it creates worse outcomes for everyone.

One coherent argument against the principle of property guardianship as a way to help to mitigate the housing crisis and prevent empty homes from blighting neighbourhoods is parallel to the argument that Slavoj Zizek applies to all charitable work – as expressed in this talk for the RSA (with animation!). Zizek argues that by making the current situation less bad, such efforts delay the revolution, and therefore delay the day when the problems we currently face are sorted out once and for all.

This may be an argument Kleinfeld and England subscribe to, though they don’t say it explicitly. If you accept the premises, then the conclusion does follow. However, to accept this, one must believe that all work to mitigate social problems which might have political solutions are corrupt, and we – like most people – don’t buy this.

On this argument, the Trussell Trust providing food parcels to the hungry, Medicines sans Frontiers sending volunteer doctors to the developing world and Refuge providing shelter to victims of domestic violence are masking the problems of poverty and abuse, therefore taking the edge off them and perpetuating the problem.

Even if it were the case that by making people’s lives slightly better, we are making revolutionary change slightly less likely, in practice, revolutions seem to be a long time coming, and don’t reliably seem to have the outcomes left-wing revolutionaries hope for.

In fact, we believe that the best way to create progressive change in a lasting way is to bring people together and encourage them to work together, talk and discuss ideas, and trust one another. Strong communities are better able to work together to come to a vision of the change they want, and to advocate for it. No one feels like working on projects that would make a difference in the long run if they’re miserable here and now and feel that they are living in a war zone. That makes them lock themselves away and look after themselves and those close to them, rather than working for the common good. By bringing people together, making the lives of guardians and their neighbours slightly easier, and showing a positive example of what is possible when people cooperate, then we believe we are making change more likely.

Of course, if you take the view even more extreme than Zizek’s that all property is theft, and so therefore the only justified way to have a home is to squat it, then you won’t believe in property guardianship, just as you won’t believe in renting one from a private landlord or maybe even owning one yourself. Perhaps, on this belief system, to be a property guardian is to be a blackleg, crossing a picket-line maintained by anarchists. There is probably no agreement possible with people who subscribe to this – perfectly valid – argument. It’s just based on a world view we don’t share.

In conclusion, then, we’re fiercely proud of what we’re doing at Dot Dot Dot. We believe that we are offering good homes to the guardians we house, and making a positive difference to the communities where we work, as well as helping landlords. We are content with achieving just this – cheaper homes and safer neighbourhoods for the people we work directly with.  But if challenged on our contribution to the bigger picture, we believe that our impact is positive and makes long-term systemic change for the better more rather than less likely.

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