Lily Helps
Lily Helps said she would miss the community in Wellington Close

A government ban on evictions during the coronavirus lockdown gave some protection to private renters – but not all. EMILY FINCH meets property guardians in New Cross who face losing their homes at the end of this week.

For Henry Smith and his neighbours, the letter telling them to leave their homes within 28 days couldn’t have come at a worse time.

“We don’t have anywhere to go. We’re a bit homeless,” said Henry, a 30-year-old filmmaker and property guardian who has lived in a former sheltered housing block in New Cross for the past three years.

Henry is one of an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 property guardians in the UK, a form of housing arrangement that sees renters live in empty buildings as licensees.

Licensees have far fewer rights than regular tenants and can be asked to leave their property after a notice period of just 28 days. In exchange, they pay about 30 per cent less than market rent but may also find themselves living in abandoned office blocks and empty buildings.

“I’m not sure I’ll be able to [find a new place to rent] as I haven’t been working through lockdown. There’s not much work at the moment for filmmakers. I’m a grand in debt for rent,” said Henry.

“I heard my neighbour break down and cry when she was told she had to leave,” he added.

Henry Smith
Henry Smith faces an uncertain future

In response to the pandemic, the government announced that landlords must give tenants a six-month notice period when asking them to vacate their homes. A four-week extension banning all evictions until September 30 was also announced, protecting those who are in rent arrears having lost their jobs.

But there hasn’t been a similar reprieve for property guardians and the group are expected to leave their homes by Saturday.

Each of the 25 flats at 2-27 Wellington Close, which is owned by Lewisham Council, is currently occupied by property guardians from the company Ad Hoc Property Management.

The majority of residents are hoping to stay in their homes until the end of the pandemic but say even an extension of two months would allow them to search for an affordable new home.

Tamara Holt*, a furniture maker whose work has dried up during the pandemic, has said the situation was “overwhelming” for her.

She said: “I didn’t leave the house [during lockdown] because my partner is diabetic and shielding. I’m being forced to go out in the last two weeks, since we got the letter [to leave].

“For me, the most stressful thing is doing viewings and going into other people’s houses. I haven’t even gone into my friends’ houses but I have to go into other people’s houses for viewings.”

Tamara also works from home after converting part of her living space into a woodworking studio.

“Sales have totally gone down because of coronavirus. For the little [orders] I have, I need the internet and a workshop,” she said.

Ad Hoc has offered Tamara, who has no recourse to public funds because of her visa status and now owes £1,000 in rent arrears, an alternative property in Mitcham, nine miles across douth London.

“I feel terrible about what is happening,” she said.

Wellington Close garden
The residents have maintained a communal garden

Lily Helps said she would miss the “community” that the space provides and added: “You have your own space here which is wonderful but you never feel alone.”

She pays £550 a month for a studio flat and grows vegetables in the communal garden which features a large trampoline and a barbecue area.

“At the end of the day, you don’t have the same rights as tenants, you share a shower with lots of people. Your living conditions are a lot lower and it’s not competitively priced to be a property guardian any more.” She said her neighbours had told her they paid £270 per month for a similar flat when they first moved in five years ago.

Lily said she was now looking to rent a flat in the private rental market. “But what happens to those who have lost their jobs and are unemployed?” she asked.

A planning application by Lewisham Homes, the council’s arms-length management organisation, to re-develop Wellington Close into 23 homes for social rent was approved in February 2018. Lewisham Homes has until February 2021 to begin work on the site before the planning permission lapses.

A spokesperson for Lewisham Council said: “The property guardians knew they could be asked to leave within their notice period. The council has gone out of its way to engage with them and we’ve been in discussion with Ad Hoc about other placements.”

*Name has been changed at the request of the interviewee. Story updated on Tuesday to include statement from Lewisham Council.

This is one of a series of stories we are running on how people in SE London have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Let us know if you have a story to tell.

EMILY FINCH is a former reporter for the Islington Tribune.

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