George F reflects on historic tensions between squatters and the use of “property guardianship” to deny access to abandoned buildings by landlords who are now ramping up rents – creating a full-blown confrontation over slum-style exploitation of people desperate for living space.
Squatters famously hate property guardianships, viewing them as the shills of owners and landlords, trading away the rights of tenants for cheaper rent and denying self-housers of valuable buildings that could otherwise be occupied. The concept was originally developed to combat squatting in the Netherlands, where it is known as ‘anti-kraak’, and the ‘live-in protection’ signs that declare the presence of what some people view as sell-outs and class traitors are often the subject to vandalism.
Update: Following publication of this article Freedom was contacted by ‘Live-In Guardians’ which demanded that we make it clear the firm is not Dot Dot Dot. We thought it was clear from context that the lead picture, showing a company sign graffitid with the word ‘Scabs’ is there to illustrate squatters’ dislike of the industry, but are happy to clarify that Live-in Guardians is not in fact an entirely differently named company, and has raised its prices by a mere 6%.
Yet, even if squatters are critical of the choices of guardians, they are united with them in their struggle against the common enemy – landlords and their agents, and indeed the concept of rent itself. That is why we call here for solidarity as the licensees of one particularly disgraceful guardianship company are organising a boycott in association with the London Renter’s Union after being informed that their payments will increase by up to 113%, from around £375 to £800 a month.
Katharine Hibbert, former Times housing journalist and founder of ‘social enterprise’ property guardianship dotdotdot, used to be a squatter and worked in the Advisory Service for Squatters for a year to gather research and information for her book, and apparently her business plan, before spectacularly cashing in by branding her own flavour of exploitative Rachmanism as “ethical.” She once posed the question, “but what would happen if one day you just jacked it all in, to survive on next to nothing?” Now it seems she wishes to recreate that experience for all the dotdotdot guardians by liberating them of all their money. So I’ll be honest, when I heard that the rents of dotdotdot licensees were being increased by up to 113%, I laughed bitterly.
Once I’d wiped the tears out of my eyes, I reflected, and realised that gloating over the grinding down of tenancy rights and the continued normalisation of the exploitation and oppression of poorer people who simply wish to be able to afford somewhere to live was pretty fucked up. The “charity-washing” of this kind of practice, dressing up ruthless landlordism as “social responsibility,” smacked of 19th-century workhouses and vagrancy laws. I could picture Hibbert in a top hat, Scrooging their way through their properties, watching their tenants shovel shit and spit-shine shoes for no money while she drools about “generous people” giving back to the community. The poor bastards who sign up to dotdotdot’s deals have to “volunteer” 16 hours a month to “good causes.” In order to get cheap rent, they have to work, unpaid, like indentured servants, or they will get evicted. Their website describes it in terms that are chilling to consider: “Since we housed our first guardian in 2011, our guardians have collectively given time worth £4.3m to good causes – the equivalent of one person working full-time for more than 200 years.”
Not content to exploit desperate houseless people, dotdotdot has managed to appropriate the concept of activism and make it into a marketable brand. The guardians volunteer, contractually obliged to avoid being made homeless, and also sign away many other hard-won tenancy rights that have been battled for by the renting classes for generations. It isn’t just an opportunity for cheap rent, it is the thin end of the wedge of the struggle against market capitalism and the insidious entry of the logic of property into every aspect of modern life.
Let us imagine ten, twenty or even fifty years down the line how the principles of property guardianship might play out: that all landlords will sign over their properties to such agencies, who will then collect market-rate rent from the ‘licensees’ whilst requiring them to work upwards of 30 hours a week. The councils could start sending them homeless people as part of a ‘community regeneration scheme’. If you don’t like it, you get evicted at a moments notice, as per the terms of your contract, which circumvent the pesky tenancy laws as you are a licensee, not a tenant.
Our strength is in solidarity and collective action. Support the boycott, join the union and encourage dotdotdot’s clients to discontinue their association. Differences in strategies aside, let squatters, tenants and guardians unite to resist and reclaim space in this city and continue the struggle for housing justice. Get in contact with London Renters Union, the Advisory Service for Squatters, or ACORN for more information and actions in your area.
– George F