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Ning Yang

Accusations of exploitation mount against an ‘ethical’ housing enterprise

Property guardians across London have launched a boycott of Dot Dot Dot after it threatened to increase rents by more than 100%. Now, they’ve united to resist.

22 Jun 2022

On a cold January morning this year, Ashley Littlejohn, 35, received a text message from an unknown number. It said there was an important email regarding her housing situation. She opened her inbox to find an email from the property guardianship company she rents from, stating that in March the fees for her flat in Abbey Wood, London would increase from £375 to £800 a month. “It was just in an email, completely faceless,” she tells me. 

Considering a four-week notice is required from guardians to leave their properties, Ashley had effectively two weeks to decide whether she could continue living in the place she’d called home for five years. She tried to reason with them, asking for a small extension, but she’s now been asked to leave. 

The experience has been hell, she says. “I haven’t been able to think clearly. I have lost weight as I haven’t been eating properly due to a lack of appetite and not sleeping well. I have experienced periods in the day where tears stream uncontrollably down my face. I feel numb, and my body keeps spontaneously shaking.” As a property guardian, she had been granted an affordable living space in return for securing and safeguarding the property, in order to reduce costs and risks associated with managing empty buildings, such as vandalism and theft.

Ashley is one of many property guardians managed by social enterprise Dot Dot Dot (DDD) now facing eviction. Launched as an “innovative” solution to the UK’s housing crisis, DDD claims to provide “safe, inexpensive housing to property guardians who volunteer for good causes”. Currently, the company manages a large number of properties in 14 different locations in the UK, charging a ‘license fee’, which is typically below market rent – and the reason why guardianships are so appealing – while guardians are required to do 16 hours of voluntary work per month in return. Yet over the last few months, DDD has dramatically increased the fees for its properties, with some rents rising by as much as 113%. 

Guardians and campaigners are now accusing guardianship companies like DDD of taking advantage of the housing crisis for profit, often excluding through their vetting processes and high rents the people in greatest need of inexpensive homes. 

An unsustainable model

Property guardianships are positioned as inexpensive housing alternatives to fill the void in the UK’s deepening housing and cost of living crisis, which has forced more people to look for different living arrangements to private renting. 

In England alone, 270,000 people are currently facing homelessness, according to official government statistics, a figure that has been increasing year on year since 2017. Due to a depleted availability of social housing, local authorities ‘ration’ access to housing by refusing access to three groups: those subject to immigration restrictions (no recourse to public funds), those not recognised as being a ‘priority need’ for housing and those deemed ‘intentionally’ homeless. This inevitably revokes housing access for some of the most marginalised members of society. 

Though not recommended by the government as a form of housing tenure, as conditions do not always “meet the standards expected in residential properties”, there are an estimated 5,000 – 7,000 people living as property guardians in the UK, although the exact number is unknown. An industry trade body, the Property Guardian Providers Association, has been set up with a stated aim of promoting best practices, safety and standards. Guardians live in ‘temporarily vacant’ properties managed by companies like DDD, and owned by housing associations and councils, including Brent council, Peabody, Poplar Harca, Red Kite and Keniston. 

“The actions of Dot Dot Dot speaks to the unscrupulousness of landlords”

Apsana Begum MP

But DDD’s property guardians have found themselves challenging the management company over drastic rent hikes, safety standards, bad communication and the ethics of the strict rules they have to follow. Residents are now trying to pressure DDD into cancelling rent increases, calling for building owners and both prospective and existing renters to boycott the company. 

“For the last 30 years, private guardianship companies have taken over spaces to rake in rents, taking amounts now sometimes at market level for ageing properties they pay no rent or mortgage for, and enforcing oppressive and invasive contractual restrictions on the people living in them,” says Phoebe Cottam, a member of the London Renters Union, who is working with DDD guardians. 

DDD was created in 2011 by an ex-Sunday Times journalist called Katherine Hibbert, who wrote a book about giving up her life of the “daily grind” to “walk the streets with only a backpack and spend a year living off the food, clothes, other goods and accommodation that would otherwise go to waste”. Cambridge University-educated Hibbert devised DDD after discovering “Britain’s wasted housing” during her “adventure”. As well as leading on strategy and taking overall responsibility for the way DDD is run, she writes for The Pavement, a magazine for homeless people. Katherine manages DDD alongside Mark Ackroyd, the chief executive who claims to enjoy “bikes, strong coffee and exploring the Peak District near his home in Sheffield”.

On the surface, the upper management running the company seems to have positive intentions. But the reality for DDD guardians has been anything but. Some guardians have described DDD’s business model as unsustainable and have criticised it for being overly controlling, while others claim the properties are unsafe. 

“The actions of Dot Dot Dot speaks to the unscrupulousness of landlords,” Labour MP Apsana Begum wrote in a recent letter to DDD guardians seen by gal-dem, “who subject tenants and occupiers to unsustainable rent increases and benefit from an economic and legislative framework that they know is stacked in their favour.”  

A breakdown in relations

Ashley first became a property guardian in 2017 after being priced out of Brighton, her hometown. After a friend recommended DDD, she moved into a two-bedroom maisonette in Abbey Wood, east London. For the first two years, the company and communication with relationship coordinators (staff who deal with the guardians) felt authentic. But then, there was a dangerous gas leak in the estate and Ashley, alongside other guardians in the area, had to be evacuated immediately. 

“There was no information about when we would be able to return, just that we had to get out and find somewhere else to stay,” she explains. During this crisis point, Ashley had felt that communication with DDD had broken down and that she, alongside other guardians, had to find their own emergency accommodation. “We had to independently and without assistance from DDD, secure ourselves safe shelter that night and had no idea for how long.” 

In emails seen by gal-dem, after the evacuation DDD made it clear that the company was under no obligation to rehouse the guardians affected but would try to relocate them in goodwill. However, Ashley says she was offered an alternative DDD property in a horrendous state. “It lacked doors and partition walls in some parts of the building, windows were boarded up, and polystyrene was stuck all over the remaining walls.” 

“I feel numb, and my body keeps spontaneously shaking”

Ashley Littlejohn

With almost no time to decide and feeling immense pressure, Ashley agreed to move into the building. She says she tried to communicate her frustrations to DDD, flagging that many vulnerable and marginalised people are often forced into being property guardians out of not having a financial choice and should therefore be treated better. Instead, DDD questioned Ashley’s suitability for being a guardian.

In an email to her, DDD’s Ackroyd wrote: “You have described medical concerns which mean that you require stability in your housing for your own health. You have also described financial circumstances which mean that you require longer-term certainty about the costs of your housing. These circumstances make you very vulnerable in the event of receiving notice, and of course this is a concern for DDD – we cannot continue to house guardians in an open-ended way in the knowledge that they will be unable to respond safely to a notice to quit.” The entire experience was so traumatising that Ashley was later diagnosed with PTSD. 

When gal-dem reached out to DDD, Ackroyd said the company doesn’t ban people with support needs, citing that “there are many people with disabilities and medical conditions who are safely and appropriately housed by Dot Dot Dot”. However, he maintains the position that guardianship is “not suitable for everyone”, pointing to the accessibility guide on DDD’s website.

Losing a community

Sulaimon Jinadu, 35, was also a DDD property guardian for five years but has now moved onto privately rented accommodation. “I tried to fight them, but the communication hit a dead end, so I thought instead of it giving me stress, anxiety and making life hell, I’d rather just move away and rent privately,” he explains over the phone. 

Sulaimon also lived in Abbey Wood and was told his rent was about to more than double. “They normally put the rent up by about 5-10% [a year], but this time they tried to put it up by 105%, I was paying £400, and they tried to make me pay £820. And I thought, ‘Where do you get that from?’” 

Sulaimon was furious that he had to pay the market price for his house, on top of doing 16 hours of voluntary work and guarding the property. He says he couldn’t handle his deteriorating anxiety from not knowing whether he would be able to keep a roof over his head. DDD told guardians the fees need to be set at a rate that allows them to “operate safely and sustainably”, and claims they still fall within 50-70% of local private rental prices. However, the company hasn’t provided a clear outline of where the money collected from the increased fee prices will go.

Working in the building industry, Sulaimon was also frustrated by the lack of safety standards in the accommodation the guardians were living in, despite DDD’s commitment to an extensive list of health and safety standards. “A lot of the properties were lacking fire doors and fire equipment. So during a meeting [with DDD], I brought that up to their attention. I said: ‘Do you know what, if you lot want me to be paying this kind of money, that’s basically private renting. So if that’s going to be the case, you need to do some amending to the property as it doesn’t meet fire regulation.” 

DDD told gal-dem that the “buildings guardians live in are at a standard that meets or exceeds legally required standards” and that they’re maintained in this condition while the property is still under the company’s management. “As we do not own the buildings we manage, we are unable to make major alterations to most properties,” the spokesperson from the company continued. “Maintaining or repairing major items such as lifts is cost-prohibitive and would prevent Dot Dot Dot from being able to offer this housing option.”

Sulaimon says DDD tried to lower his rent to £720 and then offered £650 in March, but he felt pressured to sign the agreement before the planned meeting with the London Renters Union and other guardians. Though he gave them a verbal acceptance, they issued him a notice to quit, citing that this was because he didn’t sign on the day they requested.

“I tried to fight them”

Sulaimon Jinadu

“It had become a home to me because I had spent so much money on making it a home, which is why I was upset with them. When they give you the property, it is unfurnished and unpainted. I had to do the flooring; I put the shower in and did tiling, flooring, cabinets, everything. It cost me over £2,000 to bring it to a liveable standard. And now they’ve kicked me out, just to move someone else in. That’s so wrong of them.”

Sulaimon’s frustrations were building throughout his tenure. He was already fed up by the lack of freedom as a DDD guardian, but the rent increase was the final nail in the coffin. “You want me to pay £820, and I can’t bring no friends around?” he laughs. 

In license agreements seen by gal-dem, guardians have to obtain permission from DDD before booking a trip away that lasts more than 14 days, warning that they may need to terminate their agreement and place another guardian in the property to ensure security. Guests are also not allowed to be in the property without the guardians, who are held responsible for their guest’s behaviour. DDD guardians can’t have gas equipment or candles in their houses. Parties aren’t allowed; they can’t bring anyone to stay in their place while they’re not there or have more than three people over at any time. “You can’t even bring your girlfriend to stay there while you work,” says Sulaimon.

Sulaimon is primarily sad about the community he has lost. Now living in Battersea, he misses the volunteering work at the local community museum, Crossness Engines Trust, where he helped fix a locomotive train and got to know the families in the area. 

No affordable alternatives

Martha*, based in east London’s Poplar, is one of the older guardians resisting DDD’s rent hike. She became a property guardian due to a relationship breakdown and had to find affordable accommodation. Though her rent has been upped to £850 from £500, she signed an agreement accepting the new terms because it was too difficult not to. “We’re obviously still campaigning, but I wasn’t in the right place [mentally to refuse].”

She was in “total shock” after receiving news of the rent increase in March. “I’d heard whispers that it was going on in different areas before I came active in the campaign. I’d said, ‘touch wood, it hasn’t reached Poplar’.” Now she’s worried about how she’s going to make ends meet. “On my own, in the current climate with the cost of living crisis and how it’s just accelerating… financially, I’m going to struggle,” she tells me.

“It’s offensive that DDD presents itself as an ethical ‘solution’ to the housing crisis”

Phoebe Cottam

DDD had claimed the price increase was due to Martha living in a two-bedroom maisonette, despite it being classed initially as a one-bedroom – because the bedroom at the back had a hole in the ceiling. “The property was smelling quite damp, and a couple of my neighbours said they could hear squirrels nesting, so I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, what if rodents get into my house?’” Martha invited a builder friend to cover the hole cosmetically as a temporary fix, but now the walls and the ceiling have started to go black. She believes that during one of the unannounced inspections, it was reported that there is a liveable second bedroom. “I’ve noticed on their website that they’re charging me for a solo occupancy of a two-bed now.”

Though it’s been a horrible few months, Martha is grateful for the sense of community the guardians have created in their resistance and hopes that her rent will get reduced retroactively through all of the determined organising. 

Some of the property guardians protesting outside the DDD offices.

Profiting off a deepening housing crisis

“It’s particularly offensive that DDD presents itself as an ethical ‘solution’ to the housing crisis,” says the LRU’s Phoebe Cottam. “They maintain this image partly also by claiming the credit for the mandatory volunteering they make guardians do, and then they use this ‘ethical’ image to make it easier for councils and housing associations to offload social housing properties planned for development. From where we’re standing, this is pretty exploitative, and Dot Dot Dot is just a private company renting out social housing for its own profit.”

When gal-dem reached out to DDD for comment, Ackroyd, the chief executive, shared an updated version of a previous press release

“Dot Dot Dot’s fees are set at 50-70% of local private rental prices”, it states. “We reviewed the fees charged to guardians in the first part of 2022 to bring them into line with this. Our new fees range from £325 to £880 per month, with the higher fees being charged to people living alone in houses and flats with several bedrooms in London – enabling one person to live by themself in a large space. Guardians had at least 10 weeks’ notice of these changes. For some guardians who had paid very low fees for a long period, the fee changes were significant. Other guardians were already paying fees in a sustainable range and were not affected. Fee increases are not something that we undertook lightly.”

Ackroyd also points out that not all the guardians managed by DDD have had a bad experience, with many of them reviewing the company positively on its Instagram page.

A spokesperson from Peabody, the housing association which owns the Abbey Wood properties, told gal-dem:

“We’re aware of licence fee increases in this instance, which appears to have put fees in line with other companies, but have received no reports of unsafe properties at all. Full inspections and checks are done at the point of handover to the management company, and guardians should urgently let the property guardian company know of any concerns directly. Safety must be our primary concern, and if any properties are now found to be unsafe or unsuitable then action will be taken to address the issue. This may include leaving properties empty pending redevelopment.”

“We are resilient and really have a chance to improve things when we work together”

Ashley

In February, many of the guardians signed up as members of the London Renters Union and have been supported by other experienced members to take action against the company. They have had meetings with DDD directors and, among other tactics, have staged protests at the company’s office, demanding a cancellation of the rent increases. They held a second protest a few months later, where guardians and other LRU members gave heartfelt speeches about the campaign and the impact of the rent increases outside of the company’s office. The guardians are now boycotting DDD until the increases are reversed.

With support from other members of the London Renters Union, the guardians are also organising to develop short-life housing cooperatives that could replace DDD, similar to existing ones like St Mark’s in London. They argue that by managing their housing cooperatively, with contracts directly from building owners, their rents could be much lower. But they need the public’s support and ask that supporters show solidarity by boycotting DDD, joining London Renters Union and by following @PGsResist on Twitter and Instagram.

“I have been going through a lot, the notice to quit and the starkly indifferent treatment from Dot Dot Dot has been overwhelming at times,” says Ashley. “Guardians came together in a really impressive way in this campaign, everyone’s experience and ideas, and the solidarity offered by fellow guardians has helped. We are resilient and really have a chance to improve things when we work together.”

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.

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