The headquarters of the property guardian company Camelot was ironically occupied on Tuesday 27 September making headlines in the UK. The company was targeted by activists to raise awareness of property guardians who are suffering due to slack tenancy rights and a lack of affordable social housing.
Property guardians benefit from low cost rooms in both commercial and residential properties that would otherwise be vacant. When you become a property guardian, you become a contractual licensee. The contractual licence in this situation arises out of an agreement under which the property guardian has to pay money in return for accommodation. Unlike a tenant, a property guardian does not have exclusive possession.
Since 1915 there has been extensive statutory regulation of the relationship between landlord and tenant. To avoid an occupier having statutory protection many landlords have sought over time to create licences instead of tenancies. This practice took place particularly in the 1970s and 80s when private tenants had extensive rights under the Rent Acts. Today this trend is continuing with property guardian companies and multi-national firms like Camelot, Ad Hoc and Dot Dot Dot offering licences to properties instead of tenancies. These firms have increased by between 40-50% in recent years.
This is occurring alongside a legislative backdrop that has criminalised occupation of empty residential dwellings since September 2012. Squatters now face up to 6 months in jail and a maximum fine of £5000 if they move into a homeowner’s property.
At first glance property guardianship may seem like a solution to the housing crisis. There were 600,179 vacant residential dwellings in England on 5 October 2015 and 114,790 homeless households, but looking more closely this growing trend risks weakening the legal rights of occupiers to a worrying extent.
Property guardians are not covered by any of the major private sector legislation protecting tenants except for the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 (PEA). PEA protects property guardians to the extent that the landlord in order to evict the guardian must serve a notice to quit of at least 28 days in the prescribed form and obtain a court order.
Nonetheless, large companies such as Camelot purport to be able to evict a property guardian with immediate effect. In their terms and conditions they state that this will take place where there has been gross misconduct. Gross misconduct is interpreted to include: failing to observe Health and Safety requirements and legislation, direct contact with the Owner of the Property, strong language etc. This would constitute an illegal eviction.
Property guardians also may not come under legislation covering housing standards. This is because the Housing Act 2004 governs the fitness for habitation for residential premises. If you are a property guardian in commercial premises, then your accommodation may not be reasonable to occupy.
Recently, the Immigration Act 2014 introduced the right to rent check for residential tenancy agreements. An implication of this could well be that individuals without a clear immigration status resort to becoming property guardians in commercial properties where they are not protected by legislation on housing standards and face illegal eviction; resulting in exploitation.
As Dianne Cowie, one of Duncan Lewis’ housing directors, recently noted: “this is one element of the many legal issues facing both landlords and tenants. Legal Aid is available to assist people who face illegal eviction, homelessness or where serious disrepair is affecting their health. Arguably, as a property guardian you may face all three.”
If you or someone you know have suffered due to any issue concerning Housing, contact Duncan Lewis’ specialist housing solicitors on 0333 772 0409.
About the author: Joshua Platt
Joshua Platt is a Caseworker in the Duncan Lewis Housing department. Josh handles all matters of Housing law issues to provide his clients the most helpful and beneficial solutions to their matter.