"Hundreds of thousands of homes have been empty for many months, even years, but the regulators and authorities are doing more to discourage their use than to match them up with people desperately seeking affordable accommodation," says Graham Sievers, chairman of the PGPA, the body that sets safety and quality standards for member property guardian companies.
Temporarily vacant properties can be kept secure and protected from theft, vandalism, arson and neglect, by installing resident property guardians, whilst the owners plan their redevelopment. Owners of these properties range from local authorities, housing organisations, public bodies such as churches, the NHS, colleges, and police services, through to commercial enterprises such as major banks and pub chains.
"The pandemic has led to a significant rise of empty properties, both commercial and residential, whilst at the same time, people's living expenses have been hit by a shortfall in incomes. A third of guardians are key workers - medical staff, teachers, police, firefighters - and approximately a third more are in the creative sector. At a time when there are greater pressures for providing more affordable housing, the property guardian model could be enabling more than 100,000 people to live closer to work and save on their living expenses, whilst also saving millions of pounds protecting vacant buildings,” Mr Sievers explains.
“It seems crazy that the government and the regulators treat these properties as if they were part of the private rental sector, when they are clearly only intended to provide accommodation temporarily, and not for decades. Property regulations, aimed at protecting traditional tenants in the long-term private sector, are inappropriately being applied to temporarily vacant buildings being adapted for 'meanwhile use' to keep the properties secure."
The PPGPA says the regulations are not fit for purpose for accommodation that is meant for temporary use. The association has called on the government to provide exemptions that would support this model for affordable housing, without compromising guardians’ safety.
It argues that guardian properties are in fact likely to be safer than those in the private rental sector, because of regular inspections (from weekly to monthly), that form part of the guardian licence. The safety of a guardian property is therefore likely to be higher than a five-yearly Home of Multiple Occupation (HMO) licence inspection.
"Our members inspections check, for example, electrical socket over-use, evidence of cooking facilities in bedrooms, which is prohibited, and other risks on a regular basis, a key difference to private sector rentals," Mr Sievers adds.
HMO licences have become mandatory for any building where more than five (sometimes three) people live. There are some exemptions, such as student halls of residences and buildings owned by local authorities, and the PGPA would like to see these exemptions extended to include guardian properties run by recognised, audited guardian providers.
The PGPA cites two of many examples of how inappropriate these regulations are when applied to temporary accommodation:
- One standard requires at least one metre of kitchen worktop space per guardian, (some authorities ask for more) that would mean a property temporarily offering accommodation for 15 guardians requiring at least 15 metres of worktop surface, in a place which might not be available six months from occupation.
- Some HMO licences require a minimum of a shower per floor - one prospective property is an empty office building in Mayfair; it lies empty, has five quality shower rooms in its basement, but this would not be compliant for an HMO licence. The opportunity for prospective guardians to temporarily live in a huge space in central London is being restricted because HMO guidelines require that they should not have to walk up or down more than one floor to reach a shower.
Mr Sievers concludes: "Guardians choose this 'co-living' concept; they know the property is not available long-term and are aware that they will be sharing facilities. They want to live there so they can save thousands of pounds on their annual living costs, for a deposit on their own home, or to build their start-up enterprise.
"They are very willing to accept they may have to live with the daunting prospect of not having a shower on each floor. To force the provision of dwelling standards meant for long-term use over decades, inevitably restricts the opportunity for empty stock to be used for affordable accommodation. It seems the authorities would prefer buildings to sit empty and useless, rather than house guardians."
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