No round table with Camelot

The following post is by Karen Eliot, who is involved with social and housing projects in London.

A recent article in the Independent, responding to the coalition governments’ intentions to criminalise squatting, proposes “vacant property protection” companies such as Camelot and Ad Hoc provide a compromise between the needs of those seeking cheap housing and the rights of the owner of an empty property. The article suggests that such agencies forge a “mutually beneficial union” between these two parties, and could therefore be a solution to the glaring mismatch between the housing shortage, and the abundance of empty properties.

Given the current attacks on housing benefits, massive cuts to the third sector and an attempt to criminalise squatting that will leave tens of thousands homeless, the suggestion that these companies provide some ‘socially responsible’ solution is dangerous and naive. Camelot’s ‘solutions’ are financial ones: this post will look in a little more detail at the way these vacant property protection companies work and why this would be a pretty bleak direction for affordable housing to take.

Camelot and similar companies are exploiting a gap in the housing market created by inflated rents in the private sector and the shrinking amount of social housing (or what is now more commonly referred to as simply ‘affordable housing’). Squatting and other alternatives to a marketised system of housing are no longer options for most people, after decades of attack by government, in concert with waves of hate campaigns by right-wing and centrist media outlets. Those who cannot afford private sector rents, and find themselves ineligible for social housing, have fewer and fewer places to turn to for housing. For some, becoming a vacant property guardian seems like a good option.

But here’s the catch. The laws that exist today to protect tenants were brought in to protect them from unscrupulous landlords and to ensure that certain standards of living were kept in rented accommodation. For example landlords cannot enter your home without your permission, they must follow the correct procedure if they want a tenant to leave, and they must make sure the building meets safety standards and is structurally sound. However, for some landlords, these rights seem like an encumbrance. Vacant property protection companies such as Camelot have recognised this as an issue for landlords; for every market problem there is a market solution and so they side-step the issue of tenants’ rights by doing away with the concept of a tenant altogether. Instead, they have “guardians”. These companies are creating a new class of pseudo-tenants, inhabitants of a property paying to live where they’re living but with none of the rights of tenants.

Anyone wanting to live in a building being managed by Camelot must, after passing background checks, giving character references and handing over a security deposit, sign the Temporary Occupation Licence Agreement. This agreement sets out very stringent rules for those living in Camelot managed properties. Guardians are required to give 24 hours notice before having any guests round – so a friend that calls by because they happen to be in the area would, technically, have to be turned away at the door and told to come back tomorrow. Guardians must not be away from the property for more than 3 nights in a row. Management can also let themselves into the property without giving notice to perform spot-checks on the licensees – often guardians will return home to find management in their bedroom, or will find Camelot-branded post-it notes scolding them for not keeping their kitchen tidy and reminding them that they are not allowed to smoke in their homes. With each slip that the guardian makes comes the reminder that the next will mean a termination of their agreement.

Guardians are given only 14 days notice to vacate premises when the property owner decides they want to work on the building, and Camelot is not obliged to find them anywhere else to stay. Guardians are also forbidden to show their Temporary Occupation Licence Agreement to anyone or discuss the terms of their license with anyone. Ask someone living in a Camelot-managed property if any of the above is true and they’d be in breach of their agreement if they answered you. Not being “tenants”, they have no legal rights against Camelot beyond those set out in their Licence which is, according to Camelot, “watertight”.

From one end of the bargain, landlords are paying these companies to provide a ‘security service’; namely for guarding the property against vandalism, theft, dilapidation and squatters. From the other end of the bargain, the guardians are also being charged up to £500 per month for the privilege of being live-in security guards. It’s a win-win situation … for Camelot.

Those eligible for Camelot (which excludes a significant bracket of those in need of affordable housing) choose it because there is a real need for affordable, secure housing. But by becoming guardians they forfeit all the rights of tenants, which results in a relationship that is essentially exploitative. In sidestepping the legal responsibilities of the tenant/landlord relationship Camelot, Ad Hoc and other similar companies give themselves the space to make huge profits from providing minimal living conditions for people unlikely to be able to find an alternative.

The attempt to criminalise squatting needs to be seen in the wider context of the struggle for secure, affordable and dignified housing. By criminalising squatting, property owners and speculators will be more legally equipped to keep their properties empty, and those who can no longer house themselves will be forced onto the streets or into the pockets of vacant property protection.

Vacant property protection is no solution to a housing crisis. If Camelot and its kind are allowed to deny people the rights of tenants, if rent continues to rise and wages continue to shrink, if people can no longer house themselves with dignity and self-determination through squatting empty and underused buildings, then more and more people will find themselves priced out of the rights that protect them from exploitation.