Most people who run businesses probably wish that demand for what they sell could be infinite. The opposite is true for most at charities and social enterprises - we’d rather live in a world which didn’t have the problems we’re trying to fix. At Dot Dot Dot, the social enterprise I run, we exist to provide cheap accommodation in London to people who want to volunteer for good causes, and we do this by placing them as property guardians in homes that would otherwise be empty. The ongoing housing crisis means we have an almost bottomless pool of people who want what we offer. Our goal is to house as many of them as we can – and to do so in a way which makes systematic change more rather than less likely.
Our model works because landlords commission us to place property guardians in their buildings so they can sell, refurbish or demolish the properties when the time is right - so the homes guardians are offered may be relatively short term, and may be unfurnished and in need of a bit of TLC - a lick of paint or a session with a mop and bucket. Guardians are licensees not tenants, so can be asked to move out at short notice, and have no right to fight eviction. The upside for guardians is that it’s very cheap - we offer housing in London for between £35 and £75 a week, a fraction of the cost of renting privately. But if everyone had access to affordable, pleasant homes where they could stay as long as they liked or move whenever they chose, close to their work, family and friends, few would choose to be guardians. This situation may never have existed in London, and certainly doesn’t today - so the housing we offer is a good option for most, when compared with paying extremely high rents for hardly any more security and choice as a tenant in the private sector.
We are able to offer extremely cheap housing 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, preventing damage and reporting it when it occurs, and deterring 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. Placing guardians solves an expensive and difficult problem for landlords.
But landlords don’t choose to use property guardians when they have other options for filling their buildings. Placing guardians generates no revenue for them, and usually costs them money. So we are only offered properties when 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 to be 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. We believe that tenants should have stronger rights - and we are glad to add our voices to the campaigns calling for them to be given more protection. But more tenants’ rights means less flexibility for landlords - and therefore more empty homes, unless they’re filled up with guardians.
So we’re glad to provide a useful service to landlords and cheap housing to guardians, but we want to use empty properties to do something positive, rather than just filling them up to avoid a negative. Because being a property guardian is more demanding than being a tenant, we can only house resilient people - so we choose to house those who may be cash-poor but who want to help others who are more vulnerable by volunteering for good causes. By reducing their living costs, and by celebrating their efforts and supporting them to find great volunteering roles, we make it easier and more enjoyable to give even more time, with even greater impact.
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.
But not everyone approves. 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. We don’t do this, and Kleinfeld doesn’t accuse us of it, but he is right that some property guardian companies out there are cowboys. They are not living up to the promises they make to landlords and are placing guardians 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 choose to 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.
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. This is just not the case. Even if you object to regeneration schemes, property guardian companies do not enable them. The schemes would be going ahead regardless of our work, and the homes emptied in preparation for them would not be offered to tenants if guardians weren’t there. They would sit empty, 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 managed, and creates worse outcomes for everyone. Squatting is no solution - it's now a crime to squat an empty home, a change in the law that we at Dot Dot Dot opposed at the time. Regardless of the law, squatting is hard work, insecure and often dangerous. We believe it's better for homes to be brought into use by cooperation where at all possible.
Although they don’t say so, perhaps Kleinfeld and England go further than this and subscribe to Slavoj Zizek’s view—expressed in this talk for the RSA—that all efforts to make the current situation less bad delay the revolution, and therefore delay the day when the problems we face are sorted out once and for all.
We disagree. 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. When people feel embattled, and like they are living in a miserable, dangerous and neglected place, they lock themselves away and look after themselves and those close to them, rather than working to make things better for everyone. 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.
So 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, to mitigate the effects of the housing crisis, and to support them to help others. But if challenged on our contribution to the bigger picture, we believe that our impact is positive and makes an end to the problems we’re mitigating more rather than less likely.