Notes from a 'slum-dweller'


Yesterday was quite a heavy one for the ASI Twitter accounts, with what seemed like the world and his politically-correct wife piling onto one the student winners of our ‘Young Writer on Liberty’ competition for his suggestion that Britain could benefit from the creation of slums.

Clearly, 'slums' is an evocative and emotionally-charged word: As the author conceded, there probably wouldn’t have been any pushback if he’d just titled the piece ‘Britain needs more microflats for dynamic urban communities’. And perhaps the title was ultimately misleading, because the post didn’t actually agitate for open sewers, no electricity and dysentry for the UK’s most vulnerable, but instead relaxing restrictions on the type of homes which may be built. Still, the competition asked for bold and original thinking, and that’s exactly what we got.

A common response to the article was (in more safe-for-work terms) ‘Pah! I'd like to see the author actually live in the kind of odious accommodation he calls for!', and other retorts based on the idea that living in a sub-regulatory optimal stock of housing would in fact be unbearable. So, at this point I’d like to take one for the team, and say a few words in defence of slums. For, you see, I’m something of a ‘slum dweller’ myself. (You know what, I very much object to suggesting that where I live is a ‘slum’. But it fits the definition by reference of the original article, namely housing which fails to meet 'acceptable'/ legal living standards, and would be labelled as such by critics).

I’m part of a growing group of ‘property guardians’, who protect and look after a range of disused buildingsfrom houses to churches to schools and offices—while they’re unoccupied and waiting to be refurbished, demolished or repurposed. With the company I'm a guardian for, none of the properties have gas, and they have only limited hot water points. They're unfurnished, often with stripped-out floors, walls and kitchen equipment.  When they first come to be occupied they're usually grimy and dirty, with broken light fittings and rubbish left by the original inhabitants. And, perhaps most controversially, guardians only need receive two weeks notice before they can be kicked out of their current place.

Most people instinctively recoil when they hear all this. But in exchange for these kinds of conditions, guardians get a place to live at far-below market rent, often in a prime location, and with a amount of living space otherwise unobtainable.

I'm currently living in an old library-cum-theatre-cum-community space in South-East London (see picture above), which was initially inhabited by squatters after the council closed it down. The first guardians to move in reported mouse droppings (from cannibalistic mice, it turns out, for they proceeded to eat my taxidermy collection), people’s urine and general filth. It's covered in warnings about the asbestos, and we wash in temporary showers by the old cubicled toilets.

There's no way in hell that these kind of properties would get built for human habitation.

You wouldn't be able to put a tenant in one, either: The property guardian business only works by circumventing all the regulations and restrictions which apply to the rental market, instead registering guardians as live-in security and granting them a ‘temporary licence agreement’ for a particular room.

But instead of being trashed as exploitative and unconscionable, these property management companies (rightly) win awards for the innovative and socially beneficial service they provide. In London, such schemes are so oversubscribed that prospective guardians sometimes literally race to a new property to claim a space in it. I genuinely love being a guardian.

I’m lucky: I could afford a decent room in a normal flat, but I’d honestly just rather not spend close to 50% of my pay packet on one. The people I live with range from students to freelance artists to young professionals, some of whom have also signed up for the ‘luxury’ of lower rent and the excitement of living in unique spaces. For others, the scheme has allowed them to move to London to study or set up their business; an opportunity they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford.

That’s the kind of chance we want more people to have. Property guardianship will only ever be a niche offering available to some, while the current system restricts the type and level of further experimentation that can be done with alternative living setups.

The point of this post isn’t to prove that those with lower incomes can get by in far lower living standards, thankyouverymuch. Instead, it’s to show that there already is clear demand for affordable housing which doesn't conform to current rental standards, and which may fall below the 'acceptable' or accustomed living standard for much of the population.

There’s more than one thing we can can do to help the UK’s housing crisis, some of which are more long-term or politically palatable than others. Personally, I still think building over some of that damn green belt is the best way to go. But underneath the clickbait title of Wednesday’s piece, there’s more than a kernel of truth to the idea that given the choice, some will willingly tradeoff regulations and protection for rent. And I'm one of them.