Our commitment to cheap, cheerful housing
Britain has a housing shortage. Getting empty buildings into use helps. So it’s good to see property guardianship gaining recognition as part of the housing landscape, forming the background to Channel 4’s new sitcom Crashing, and receiving newspaper coverage following the TV programme. The more property owners and would-be guardians find out about it, the fewer buildings need stand empty when they could be good homes.
But some press coverage has implied that squalid and even unsafe housing is an inevitable part of the deal for guardians, along with bad customer service. This is absolutely not how we do things at Dot Dot Dot. All of the housing we offer to guardians is at least as safe and habitable as is required in the private rented sector. And we work hard to offer guardians a helpful, responsive service – setting expectations clearly and following up on what we promise.
We do this for three big reasons: firstly, because we want to. Providing the best housing we can is one of our reasons to exist as a social enterprise. But secondly, even if we didn’t care about it personally, delivering a quality service to property owners and guardians alike is part of our business model. And even if it weren’t, the law sets safety standards which should prevent the horror stories highlighted in recent press.
This blog post will explain in more detail why we work hard to live up to our values and provide a great service at Dot Dot Dot, and will explain the changes we’d like to see in the industry as a whole.
1. It’s our mission as a social enterprise
All of us at Dot Dot Dot come to work because we want to provide cheap housing to people who’re using their time to help others. We hate seeing buildings boarded up – a wasted resource, a security risk and a blight on neighbourhoods. And we understand the difference that volunteers make to communities and to the country as a whole.
We know how much inexpensive accommodation helps our guardians, unlocking their time and energy to give more to the causes they care about, and simply making their lives a bit easier. We want to offer them the best experience that we can, so we make sure they know what being a guardian will mean before they sign up, and we check that they are suited to the way of life. We tell them what we need from them and what they can expect from us – for example, making it clear how they can request repairs, and when deposits will be returned. We work hard to live up to what we promise, and we find that guardians do the same in return.
Some guardians want to give their new homes a lick of paint when they move in, and most need to provide their own furniture and white goods. We could sort these things out for them and increase our fees to cover the cost, but our experience is that guardians prefer us to keep the price to a minimum, and instead to roll up their sleeves and do a bit of DIY. Painting the walls lets them stamp their own identity on their homes, and usually they can source furniture more cheaply than we could via Gumtree and Freecycle.
But in contrast with press descriptions of other guardian companies leaving guardians to clear up drugs paraphernalia or deal with rats, all the housing we provide is safe, secure and has basic utilities. Where it doesn’t, we commission tradespeople to do the work.
In general, our rule of thumb is that if we wouldn’t live in a property ourselves, then we don’t offer it to our guardians. It’s part of what makes us feel proud of our work.
2. We think it’s good business
Even if we didn’t personally care about our guardians’ experience, treating them well and making sure they’re satisfied is central to our business model. Our goal is to offer the best property guardian service in the market, and our focus on quality has allowed us to gain some of London’s biggest property owners as clients, as well as winning us Security Excellence Awards in 2013 and 2015.
Reliable, considerate, flexible guardians who are happy with the service they receive from us and who believe in our mission allow us to do a great job. Our guardians are our ambassadors – they are the day-to-day custodians of property owners’ buildings, and for local communities they are the face of the company. Life is easier when we can trust them to be polite and friendly, to look after their homes well and to cooperate with us.
Of course we could enforce guardian discipline with bullying and fines, but that doesn’t seem to us to be a sensible way to achieve it. After all, we can’t breathe down our guardians’ necks 24 hours a day – we need them to follow our rules and behave in the ways we expect when our backs are turned. It seems to us that the best way to achieve this is through mutual respect – providing them with homes they’re happy in at a price they think is reasonable, explaining clearly what we need them to do and why, and making sure we treat them like the civilised adults they are.
The shoddy treatment guardians describe from other property guardian companies just doesn’t fit in with our approach to delivering a great service.
3. It’s the law!
But even if offering a great service wasn’t part of the plan, we – and all other property guardian companies – have to stick with the law. Guardians have a legal right to 28 days’ notice to move out of a property. And rules on fire safety and environmental health aren’t affected by the fact that guardians are licensees rather than tenants.
For example, an article in The Guardian describes a property divided into guardians’ rooms with plywood – but it’s illegal to place someone to live in a bedroom without fire-proof walls. The piece fails to make it clear that this means that the individuals who run that company are criminally responsible for any harm which comes to guardians as a result. It’s not just that the company can be sued in the civil courts – it’s that the boss could go to prison.
In any sector, there will be bargain basement organisations who don’t care about quality – in the five years we’ve been in business, we’ve seen a series of cowboys come and go, winning just enough work to make a quick buck, and not committed enough to staying in business to invest in delivering a good service.
However, even these operators should be aware that they have no choice but to stick with the law, and the biggest problem with some recent press coverage has been that it implies that there is a legal grey area which allows guardians to be exploited in this way. There isn’t. But if guardians and property owners think there might be, rogue property guardian companies are less likely to be held to account.
What this means for us and the property guardian industry…
At Dot Dot Dot, we go beyond the legally required standards in the housing we offer guardians because it’s part of our business model. And we go beyond what’s needed for our business model because it’s how we, as people, want to live in the world.
But we’d like to see better understanding by guardians, property owners and other property guardian companies of the implications of the law for guardianship. Our lawyer, Giles Peaker, has done excellent work to improve public understanding of guardians’ legal rights – it’s one of the reasons we’re glad to work with him.
It is also an ambition to establish clear, mutually agreed standards for property guardian companies who wish to deliver a quality service. We understand that not all organisations are motivated by social impact as we are, but we believe that it’s in all of our interests to be clear about what guardians and property owners can and should expect from a good property guardian company, so that they know what questions they should ask to avoid the cowboys.
As we’ve said before, at Dot Dot Dot we’d prefer not to have any customers – if no one wanted to be a guardian, it would be a sign that the housing crisis had been solved. But since that’s not likely to happen any time soon, we are in business to show that guardianship can be done differently and better. We want to provide a great service to our clients – property owners and guardians alike – and we want to push up standards in the industry by demonstrating that it’s better all round to focus on quality.
But we also want the sector to grow. Some recent press coverage has failed to distinguish between organisations doing a bad job and the industry as a whole. If that puts people off using property guardian companies or becoming guardians, then more buildings will sit empty and fewer people will receive inexpensive housing, and we’ll all lose out.