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Affordable housing is still a ‘political football’ do guardian schemes hold the key?

When Theresa May became Prime Minister on the 11th July last year, she promised one million new homes in the UK by 2020 to alleviate the problems of the housing crisis. If this commitment is to be fulfilled, the current new-build rate of around 170,000 properties a year will have to be radically increased. Last week, the head of the UK’s largest house builders, Berkeley Homes, categorically stated that the target would be emphatically missed. Excessive property taxation;  lack of land ready for developing, as well as a lack of commitment from Westminster were cited as some of the reasons to blame.

The housing crisis gets even worse when we look at London specifically. London’s population was actually in decline up until the late 1980’s where it stooped as low as 6.6 million. However, since that time, it is thought to have overtaken its previous peak of 8.6 million last year, and is expected to hit 10 million by 2030.

As a city, we must look to provide affordable property to accommodate for these unprecedented increases. Currently, London is failing the younger generations. Average London house prices passed £600,000 for the first time, and median rent is an astonishing £1,400 a month. Everyone knows we have a housing crisis but it has become more of a buzzword for political point scoring than a serious, or rather realistic, call for action.

So how do we solve this problem?

In 2017, whichever way you look, you’re seeing major disruptions to established business models. Like it or not; Uber has utterly transformed travel across our capital; the likes of Deliveroo and Just Eat are revitalising the food takeaway industry, and companies like WeWork are providing a totally unique proposition with shared workspace for London businesses.

I believe that now is the time for the residential sector to adapt, and Guardian schemes could be the next big thing.

In themselves, Guardian schemes are nothing new. In fact, I’ve experienced them at first hand. While working at Knight Frank back in 2014, I wrote a series of articles for the Evening Standard that showcased my experiences of guardian living. I have to say that I wasn’t overly impressed: I shared a disused office in Gospel Oak, NW5, with 20 others, sharing one shower, a makeshift kitchen, heating on 24/7 during the summer months, and a rat infestation. This was not a one-off: the guardian industry has caused a stir for providing substandard conditions for their habitants, with very little effort made to rejuvenate the buildings they are guarding.

Despite these experiences, I still felt that traditional guardian schemes were missing a trick. The opportunity was huge; according to Policy Exchange, disused commercial land and buildings in London could be redeveloped could provide up to 420,000 additional homes.

In 2016, I started my own company, Lowe Guardians. The vision of Lowe Guardians is simple: we provide property owners with a professional, efficient and low-cost solution to the problems created by leaving a building vacant and at the same time, providing quality affordable accommodation for London’s young professionals, keyworkers and creatives. All of our properties are cared for, and we make sure they are fully fitted out to a decent standard. We also provide a cleaner, Wi-Fi, amazing communal spaces and events. At the heart of what we are trying to do, is to instil a sense of community into every space we take on.

The benefits to both parties sell themselves. Landlords do not want squatters; they want their vacant buildings to be managed properly; avoiding the costs associated with leaving a building vacant. Equally, guardians want quality and affordable accommodation in the heart of London. Guardian schemes have the potential to keep both parties happy.

Currently, we have a variety of properties in our portfolio, including a former Police Station in Chelsea, an 19th century pub and art deco building in Clerkenwell. I’m acutely aware of the short-term nature of each building I take on. In time, I hope to have enough buildings coming on stream, so that when one drops off, I am able to rehouse my guardians in a new exciting space. I have also been exploring the possibility of producing a modular housing unit which can be placed inside a vacant space, allowing me to be even more creative with the space at hand.

Sadiq Khan proclaims to be “a mayor for all Londoners.” Sadiq – if you or any of your advisors are reading this, I would love the opportunity to sit down with you and discuss how we can encourage more guardian schemes to be rolled out across London to help solve a housing problem that blights this fantastic city.

Tim Lowe

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