You’re in the boozer and someone you don’t know proposes a business idea to you.
“Hey mate, a dicky bird told me you got an empty garage. You know it could be broken into by squatters or vandals and you wouldn’t want that, would you? I’ll tell you what, my security company can protect your property. Pay me a fee for protection and I’ll fill your garage with people who need somewhere to live. I’ll call them ‘property-guardians’ and they’ll pay me rent. If the garage gets any leaks or if the door gets broken off then my handy-man Jim’ll fix it for a fee which you pay me. Whaddya say? A win-win for both of us, and and everything’s sweet!”
If someone suggested this across a pub table you would just laugh (or punch them) in their face. “You take over my property, charge me for the privilege and then extort rent from others staying there? Hahaha. You’re a fucking Del Boy taking the piss.”
But this is exactly the business model used by over forty companies, operating across the UK as ‘Property-Management’ enterprises. Ironically the brain-child of some ‘entrepreneurial squatters’ in Amsterdam, Property-Management companies and their ilk have become as common as flies on shit in contemporary, austerity-ridden Britain.
After the economic crash of 2008, property prices fell – leaving empty offices, factories and warehouses all over the UK. In Bristol it was estimated that half the city-centre office space was ‘To Let’ in 2010. As the recession continued the Tories came to power and began a brutal set of cuts to local government budgets that led many councils to close down fire stations, police stations, elderly people’s homes and council offices to save money. Any attempts to build social housing were halted, and some councils (like Bristol) even began to sell their own social-housing stock off to raise money. This process continues today.
As well as this, the Tories also attacked welfare benefits, reducing them or even forcing people off them altogether. As wages stagnated or fell, particularly for the young, rents began to rise as the demand for housing grew, while middle-class kids with ‘Trustafarian’ inheritances gentrified the inner-cities.
This triple whammy of high rents, no available social housing and plenty of empty buildings should be the perfect environment for ‘squatting’, an immediate and traditional solution to a housing crisis for the less well off. After World War 2, and once again in the 1960-70s, working class people took over empty buildings to solve their housing problems.
However, in 1994 and 2001 the law was tightened up, making ‘squatting’ more difficult and in 2012, thanks to the Tories (again) – squatting in residential buildings became a criminal offence subject to arrest, fine and imprisonment. This meant that empty commercial properties became the only remaining possibility for the homeless, creating the perfect environment for a new swarm of parasites to emerge from the neo-liberal swamp…‘Property-Management’ companies.
IT’S A FUCKING SCAM
These cheapskate corporations offer ‘security solutions’ for big property owners, providing ‘guardians’ to protect ‘vulnerable empty properties’ from ‘squatters’. But this is complete bollocks. Instead, their business model is based on taking over privately or public owned buildings and letting them out to people desperate for accommodation at a lower rent.
Costs are minimal, run through a single office, a website and a maintenance worker or two to do (or not do) minor repairs. With no normal business liabilities like rent, mortgages, insurance, loans or maintenance and on average twenty ‘property-guardians’ paying rent to them in each building, they can just rake it in. Add to this ‘cash cow’ the fees levied on the real owners for ‘security services’ and repairs, the stage is set for MASSIVE profits!
However, vital to the entire con was to get round tenancy laws – which after a long series of protests and legal battles in the 20th Century provided tenants with environmental and health & safety regulations, and also protections against illegal evictions, threats and extortionate rent increases. So ‘Property-Management’ companies hired lawyers to find loopholes in the web of laws protecting tenants. Central to this tactic was to never mention the three terms, tenant, landlord or rent in any contract. Instead the tenant became a ‘property-guardian’, the landlord became ‘the property management company’ and rent became a ‘fee’. On top of this, the tenancy agreement mutated into a ‘licence’.
The typical property-guardian ‘licence’ issued by a property-management company is an interesting document indeed. You’d expect a ‘security company’ hiring ‘security guards’ to have contracts with their employees that clearly stated their duties in the building, such as – clear guidelines on their power to deal with intruders, how to interact with police, fire and ambulance services etc etc. Instead, what you do find on the front page is ‘This is not a tenancy’, followed by pages of weird and wonderful ‘rules’ aimed at getting round tenancy law, interspersed with illegal threats of fines and evictions for not following them. In order to keep the so-called property-guardians isolated from the outside and from each other the following ‘rules’ are common:
- The Guardian will not hold meetings, parties or other similar gatherings in the property
- The Guardian will not permit any other person (other than other Guardians) to stay overnight in the property
- The Guardian will not display any sign, poster, document or sticker without property-management company’s consent
- The Guardian will not attempt to contact the owner of the property
- The Guardian will not speak to the media about the owner, the property-management company or the property
- If the Guardian becomes aware that anyone else is doing something prohibited by this clause, the guardian will inform the property-management company immediately he Guardian will notify the property-management company if they cease to be employed
- The Guardian will not seek to claim housing benefit, job-seekers allowance or any related benefit without the prior consent of the property-management company
Apart from sounding like regulations issued by a crazed fascist-dictator, these rules are in place to prevent Guardians from organising by creating a climate of fear, to isolate and ‘gag’ them and to hinder contact with a local authority who might uncover the shit conditions they’re living in. In Bristol, property management company Camelot used its gagging clauses to threaten tenants with eviction if they spoke to the local council or their political representatives! It was also these draconian rules which allowed Camelot to get away with putting Guardians in Bristol City Council properties without licences for Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMO) for several years. HMO’s are there to ensure residential properties meet certain health and safety standards, particularly in relation to fire. It seems many property-management companies like Camelot (and City Councils) ignore HMO’s to save money whilst putting the Guardians at risk.
Not satisfied with flouting laws which are there to protect tenants, property-management company ‘licences’ are also full of extra penalties and ‘administration’ fees which along with the ‘damage security payment’ (the deposit in other words), add up to hundreds of pounds of extra costs for the ‘Property-Guardian’.
In the final paragraph of the endless pages of loopholes and threats in the ‘licence’ come the two statements which give the whole game away:
- It is hereby expressly acknowledged by all parties that the Guardian has NO security responsibility as defined in the Private Security Industry Act 2001
- The Guardian expressly acknowledges that they only have the powers of an ordinary citizen and they will not assume the powers of security officers or the police or any governmental authority
So the ‘Property-Guardian’ is NOT there for security purposes and has no powers as such. So despite all the pseudo-legal flannel in the licence it’s fairly obvious the Property-Guardian is actually just a tenant paying rent to a landlord. The disguise these companies use to hide this obvious relationship is compounded by the use of corporate legal devices to protect them from legal challenges and compensation claims by tenants.
SLUM LANDLORDS (ON SOMEONE ELSE’S PROPERTY)
Camelot has used (at least) four different companies to run their ‘property-management’ operations in the UK. Typically, this involves creating asset-less corporate entities in the frontline of dealing with ‘property-guardians’, and to protect the owners and core business from claims if, say, a building burned down, killing and injuring the residents. It was precisely this kind of slum landlordism that the tenancy laws were brought in to deal with in the 1960s and 70s and which these companies are flouting.
Property-management companies profit from the numerous empty local authority buildings – particularly elderly peoples’ homes and to a lesser extent schools, fire/police stations and public offices, all produced by austerity. In Bristol, Somerset and Gloucester in 2017 there are more than 40 local council owned properties ‘run’ by property-management companies, bringing in millions of pounds of rent from ‘Guardians’. Like leeches sucking blood from an injured animal they have exploited ‘cuts’ to local government spending and the concurrent housing crisis. And they have done all this whilst unbelievably harping on in the media that they are some kind of charity ‘helping the homeless’ out of the goodness of their hearts!
However, on Friday 24th February 2017 a groundbreaking legal judgement was made in Bristol County Court, where Guardians were established for the first time as tenants and NOT licensees by the judge ruling on a dispute between two aggrieved guardians and Property-Management Company Camelot. This a massive victory.
The BRISTOLIAN says:
Paul Smith (BCC Housing) must now DISMISS ALL Property-Guardian companies from their contracts with Bristol City Council AND FIRE THE BCC OFFICIALS like Chris Woods and Rupert ‘Spunkface’ Orett who signed them up in the first place. He must ALSO DEFEND ALL TENANTS (as Guardians are NOW ESTABLISHED IN COURT to be) on YOUR PROPERTY, allowing them to FORM CICs or self-managing collectives wherever possible and if this is their wish, or rehouse them if not. Furthermore, we call on BCC to introduce a CITY WIDE RENT-CAP on the runaway private sector, START A MASSIVE REGENERATIVE SOCIAL HOUSING PROJECT, and REPOSSESS all BCC properties leased to Property Management Companies