Anti-Squat Security Companies: Protection by Occupation?

A member of the Advisory Service for Squatters (ASS) takes a look at how anti-squat companies are thriving off the increasingly precarious housing situation.

'Anti-squat' or 'protection by occupation' groups are security companies. They offer CCTV, Sitex, security patrols and alarms to property owners, but their most effective security option has proved to be live-in guardians. Camelot, established in the Netherlands in 1993 and the UK in 2001, is probably the best known anti-squat company, but almost all security companies now have a 'live-in guardian' option for their clients. Such groups rely on the landlord-class prejudice that squatters only damage the properties they occupy, using the term 'squatters' interchangeably with 'vandalism' and 'arson'. Their guardians have no tenancy rights and are (unwaged) security guards for the company. The method has been described as “controlled living” by Camelot director John Mills. The emergence of anti-squats represents a dangerous erosion of tenants' rights and a further step toward the complete institutionalisation of bad housing. Worryingly, the role of protection by occupation companies throughout Europe as 'affordable housing providers' has grown in recent years, particularly with the increasing criminalisation of squatting, which took effect in the Netherlands on the 1st of October 2010. At that time a rough estimate was that 0.01% of the country's population (approximately 50,000 people) were employed as live-in guardians.

The business model of an anti-squat is extremely profitable; Camelot has expanded greatly in the last ten years, other companies have sprung up in the wake of their success and all security companies have realised the market potential of guardians. The anti-squat company acts as the middle man (or 'managing agent') and as such receives payment from both the landlords and guardians in exchange for doing spectacularly little. Their 'use/loan' agreements ensure that guardians are granted a 'licence' (as opposed to a tenancy) in exchange for a 'licence fee' (as opposed to rent). Buildings occupied by property guardians need only be wind and rain proof, saving the company and owner money on the repairs that those with tenants rights would be entitled to. Both the anti-squat company and the owner reserve the right to enter the property at any time and without giving notice, partly to create a panopticon-like sense of total surveillance and partly to pander to the arrogance of professional ownership.[1]

'Administration fees' will be charged for late payment, but are sometimes applied seemingly arbitrarily and the initial 'fee' also includes a deposit which many guardians never see again. Licensees can be evicted with little or no notice as there are clauses in licence agreements that mean contracts can be terminated for no reason whatsoever; anti-squat companies are under no obligation to rehouse those they have evicted, though in some cases they might consider it if the guardian “has continually complied with the rules”.[2] It is this reality that allows councils to abdicate responsibility for people turfed out of local authority housing stock that they have signed over to vacant property protection companies. In most anti-squat contracts, guardians are not permitted more than two guests at a time; often demanding to be informed if a guardian has a guest staying overnight. Parties are strictly forbidden and no-one under the age of 18 is allowed inside Camelot properties at all. Guardians are not permitted to work on the properties in any way, meaning the buildings often carry on rotting even with people inside them. As they are primarily security guards, most anti-squat caretakers are not allowed to spend more than two nights away from the property without first getting written permission, which can of course be withheld. For breaches of contract, a fine can be issued or the contract terminated, sometimes with immediate effect. In some cases property protection companies have been known to contact guardians' employers. For breaches of contract in communal areas (where they don't know 'who dunnit') they sometimes issue a joint fine to all the guardians at a property, further encouraging the occupants to police each other as well as themselves. Anti-squat companies will often appoint one occupant of each property to be 'head guardian'; like a prefect or local colonial leader, these 'chosen ones' will inform on those they live with in exchange for systemic 'perks' (like rehousing!).

In spite of the invasive and controlling rules imposed by these companies, waiting lists are long, testament to the extreme difficulty most people have finding decent housing that they can afford. The anti-squat PR campaign is of 'affordable living' for 'key workers' in expensive cities like London. All anti-squat companies conduct a thorough vetting process of anyone applying to be a guardian. Camelot “only select those who can provide evidence of their identity, reliability of character...employment records, proof of financial status and any details of bankruptcy or criminal convictions”[3]. Indeed, Camelot stipulates that guardians must have no criminal record[4]. Gallowglass Security, which runs a 'caretaker' service as well as a 'Bailiff Support' service, proudly declares on its website that guardians are “controlled by a 24 hour management team...have no tenancy rights and can vacate your property at 48 hours notice”[5].

This year a one-time member of the Advisory Service for Squatters[6], a voluntary collective giving free legal advice to homeless and vulnerably housed people, decided to use the knowledge and experience she had gained from working with the group to set up her own anti-squat company. Katherine Hibbert claimed one of her motivations in founding Dotdotdot Property[7] was to provide a cheap housing option 'for everyone'. Squatting, she pointed out, can be stressful, time consuming and therefore not always a viable option. Given that her business venture conducts the same guardian 'vetting' process as Gallowglass, Camelot etc (including immigration checks), being a Dotdotdot guardian seems no more an option 'for everyone' than squatting. Again, contracts can be terminated with as little as fourteen days notice (the latter point she conceded “kind of sucks”). The 'edge' that supposedly makes Dotdotdot stand out in the profit-hungry anti-squat market is its emphasis on 'voluntary' workers. Dotdotdot aims to prioritise those on their waiting list doing the most voluntary work for 'the community', meaning in practice those who can do internships while their families pay their rent, thus imposing a further barrier to housing for those who will be unable to submit extensive proof of voluntary work. Dotdotdot, the supposedly 'ethical alternative' to Camelot's corporate callousness, is in reality no different to other vacant property protection companies. Their PR acts as the 'greenwash' of the anti-squat industry, obscuring an otherwise blatant attack on housing and tenancy rights.

In September 2011, John Mills stated that “Camelot are a security company, but local authorities are coming to see us as a housing provider”. As councils are often more inclined to pay for security contracts than to house homeless people, and with the government and press conducting another of their periodical, misinformed anti-squatter campaigns, protection by occupation companies are already doing well. This is a very different process from the squatter 'amnesties', short life council leases and housing co-ops that emerged from the squatter and housing activist movements of the 1970s. This current form of 'temporary living', in what is often substandard housing, is expensive for occupants and totally geared toward the banks, mortgage companies and developers who are the main clients of anti-squat companies. Whatever dubious 'security' gained is all theirs, not ours.
Advisory Service For Squatters is an unpaid collective of workers who have been running a daily advice service for squatters and homeless people since 1975. It grew out of the former Family Squatters Advisory Service, which was founded in the late 1960s. ASS publishes The Squatters' Handbook, the thirteenth edition of which is the current one, and has sold in excess of 150,000 copies since 1976. As we are short of volunteers and money, we are rarely able to help students, journalists etc., who so often seem to want us to do their article/project for them. Their website contains articles, documents and various information about squatting including history and 'squat zines'. There is also a gallery with photographs stretching back over 30 years.

ASS is open Monday-Friday 2-6pm.

Contact Details: 020 3216 0099, , www.squatter.org.uk, Angel Alley, 84b Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX

References
References

[1] “Carefree Vacant Property” http://vimeo.com/9649993
[2] Camelot Guardian Guidelines www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUlmAh8BIpw
[3] Camelot Guardian Guidelines www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUlmAh8BIpw
[4] http://uk.cameloteurope.com/508/0/available-now-for-live-in-guardians/adventurous-living-and-working-as-a-live-in-guardian.html
[5] www.galsec.co.uk/caretakers.php
[6] ASS – www.squatter.org.uk
[7] Dotdotdot Property - www.dotdotdotproperty.com

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