In London, a room doesn’t come for free.
My first ever digs as a property guardian were in an old school near Forest Hill. I lived in what used to be the nurse’s office, with my own ‘en suite’ bathroom (a manky wet room with a ceiling track hoist – an incredibly slow zip-wire-cum-ceiling-monorail used to transport the infirm and very elderly). There was a lingering medicinal smell that no amount of Febreze could ever exorcise. Still, for £435 a month – all bills included – it was a sweet deal, far less than what my friends were paying for cupboards in Dagenham. We used to throw parties in the staff room; there was also a giant papier-mâché dinosaur sat in the reception area. What more could I ask for?
Property guardians are the loose-knit army of residents who ‘occupy’ and ‘protect’ many of the UK’s vacant buildings. The government’s official website states that ‘there is no statutory or official definition of a property guardian’ but here’s my attempt: imagine you’re a real estate mogul who has purchased a dilapidated office block. You plan to convert it into a set of stunning luxury flats, obviously. However, planning permission is a drag, squatters are a pain and 24-hour security costs a bomb. So you subcontract a property guardian firm to take care of the matter. They semi-adapt your building and make it semi-suitable to live in. Then they fill it with ‘guardians’, whose presence will deter those pesky squatters from breaking in. These ‘guardians’ pay a ‘monthly licence fee’ to live in the space, and you take a cut. When the time comes, you can simply take the building back and ‘terminate the licence agreement’ with 28 days notice.
What we might call ‘traditional’ tenancy language is always strenuously avoided, as guardians have swapped normal tenancy rights for cheap rent and a ‘license to occupy’. The word ‘landlord’ is never uttered: the owner of the building is referred to simply as ‘the client’.
After five months in the matron’s office, we were given notice. Next up was a 14-month stint in the dining room of an old boozer in Battersea; I shared the space with some mice and a huge menu board that still adorned the wall: ‘Sausage, Egg, Chips’ was my ‘Live, Laugh, Love’. This was followed by nine months in a former hospice in Brixton with 15 other people, half of whom I never met.
Each time I got settled in my new ‘home’, the dreaded eviction email would pop up in my inbox. I knew a girl who took a space and then received her 28 days notice the same afternoon she moved in. Still, at least she got a month to experience the thrill of living in an abandoned morgue.
If you’re lucky, you can score a long-haul stay – I always recommend picking a council-owned building if you have the chance: as with most public-sector projects, time is not of the essence, so you’re guaranteed to be there for years.
Your guardian unit will always be unfurnished, so I suggest you adhere to an extremely austere interior decor scheme: ‘guardianship minimalism’ – one futon, a single bean bag, one pitiful ‘Home Sweet Former Care Home’ cross-stitch to hang on the wall. I never bothered putting up curtains either. What was the point? Instead, I’d blast the windows with a can of frosted glass spray.
My final and longest sojourn was in a disused nursery in Waterloo, where I had four dusty rooms to myself for £550 a month. (My predecessor had allegedly been kicked out for subletting them, which was strictly forbidden.) Of the places I lived, Waterloo was simultaneously the best and the worst. I had thousands of square feet to bask in, a view of the London Eye and a 20-minute walk to work. Unfortunately, the building also seemed to be cursed.
One of my new flatmates had a twin brother who wasn’t on the licence agreement, but he secretly lived there anyway – I met them both separately but thought they were the same person: I think this was their plan. There were five of us (officially) at the Waterloo abode, with either a few rooms to ourselves or one mammoth ex-classroom. Two of my flatmates continued to Airbnb some of their rooms out for pocket money. Another quit his day job to become a full-time artist. He turned our front hallway into his studio, where he churned out horrendous paintings and subsequently had a full-blown nervous breakdown. He would fill a tin of emulsion with self-raising flour and paper the walls with the slop, then bombard us with rambling WhatsApp voice notes filled with conspiracies about our neighbours. His replacement moved in and immediately turned one of his spaces into a massage parlour for elderly gentlemen. I found his website, which boasted full use of shower room facilities: our bathroom.
I nicknamed the building ‘The Overlook Hotel’. Guardianships often had a The Shining-feel to them: walls covered in children’s art projects, discarded hospital incident reports in drawers and a long, dank corridor that ached to flood with blood. People assumed the building was derelict. Strays sat boozing or shooting up on our front wall at all hours. Fly-tipped furniture piled up at the front gate. After dark, people would creep around the garden shitting in the bushes. It was basically a magnet for anybody up to no good in Waterloo at any given time. I would call up the company and ask for more security measures, only to be told that I was the security measure.
Alas, ‘The Overlook’s’ days are officially numbered: Lambeth Council have given the go-ahead for demolition. (Luxury flats, obviously). For once, I decided not to stick around til the end.
I thought it would be fun to try old-fashioned domesticity for a while. Instead, I yearn for instability. I’m struggling to function in a kitchen that can’t cater for a thousand children. It’s hard to relax in a living room that only has one couch, rather than fourteen of them spread across a massive striplit conservatory. I still subscribe to a bunch of weekly newsletters that advertise new spaces. Just this morning I saw a listing for an empty pub in west London: ‘Huge space. £625 all in.’ I started to salivate. I couldn’t help it.