Three years ago, as a 26-year old struggling to find an affordable place to live in London–but, as a young professional, earning too much for subsidized housing–Tim Lowe embarked on an experiment. For four months, he would try living in whatever housing he could find for less than £500 (around $800 at the time) in Central London.
He ended up in a houseboat, a housing commune, a converted horse trailer, a prototype of a pop-up tiny house, a co-living community in a former office building, and in vacant buildings where he acted as a live-in “property guardian” for the owners. Guardianship had challenges–in one building, he lived with rats, heat that couldn’t be turned off in the summer, and shared a neglected shower with 20 other people. But he recognized the potential for making use of temporarily vacant buildings for much-needed housing.
Lowe founded a startup, Lowe Guardians, that now converts empty buildings into clean, safe, desirable, and cheap housing. For building owners, having temporary residents provides free security and qualifies them for a tax break. For “guardians,” it’s an affordable way to live in a central part of the city. “It opens up and unlocks spaces that people wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford,” says Lowe.
The concept of property guardianship began in the Netherlands and Germany and came to the UK in the early 2000s, where it quickly grew. But it hasn’t been well regulated, and conditions are often miserable. “The guardian industry, for too long, has basically felt that they’re doing guardians a favor because they’ve got somewhere cheap-ish to rent,” he says. “The conditions inside were not great.”
The startup worked with designers at Studio Bark to create a Shed, a simple, affordable structure that can go inside a larger space to create a bedroom and private living area for each guardian. It’s is now beginning to use the structures inside the buildings it works with. The kit takes a day to build, and was designed for non-experts, so guardians can construct the unit themselves. When the property is later developed for another use, each Shed can be disassembled and reused elsewhere. The next version of the design, in development now, will include private bathrooms and kitchens. (Today, there are shared kitchens and bathrooms available in the vacant buildings.)
The company tries to fit as many people as it comfortably can into each building to make the most use of space, while meeting safety standards; one building, for example, has 60 guardians inside. It currently works with 180 guardians, and is looking for more vacant space.
“London is a big city, but there is a high percentage of vacant space, and there’s also a high percentage of space that could be used much better . . . we’re about using space better,” he says. “We understand that we need more housing, but we also believe that there’s a lot of real estate at the moment which is underused and can perform much better.”
Rent varies depending on location and the individual building, but ranges from about £250 ($325) to £650 ($847). “It’s pretty cheap,” says Lowe. “A lot of the time, it’s about 50% below market rent.” Depending on individual contracts, the company can also be paid by the property owner for providing security service.
Lowe argues that having high-quality accommodations inside is also better for owners. “Our viewpoint is that if we have people who are happy and respect the space they’re in, the buildings get much better looked after,” he says.
Guardians have to move if the property owner decides to develop–ironically, the land is often used to build luxury housing. But the startup sees guardianship as a solution that can help at least temporarily as the government and market struggles to solve some of the underlying challenges causing the housing shortage.
“It’s not the solution,” he says. “We’re very pro-development, and pro building the right type of housing. I feel quite passionately that our generation–the millennial generation, or whatever you want to call it–has been cut off from that.”