A Dutch firm has pledged to tackle Cardiff’s “rising” squatting problem by recruiting guardians to live in the city’s empty properties.
Ad Hoc Property Management hope to “deter squatters, thieves and vandals” by arranging for tenants to move into empty non-residential buildings.
The company charges the owners of the properties a nominal fee for the service and the “guardians” a monthly rent of between £120 and £450.
The idea is that through their presence in the building, with lights going on and off and it being visibly occupied, the squatters are deterred.
Estate agents cautiously welcomed the arrival of Ad Hoc, while squatters in the city have responded angrily, saying guardianship companies are the “parasites of the housing crisis”.
Squatting has been illegal in residential buildings in Wales and England since September last year. It was previously treated as a civil matter but the maximum penalty is now six months in jail, a £5,000 fine, or both.
The law change has led to fears the city’s non-residential buildings are increasingly being targeted by squatters and during the past eighteen months there have been several squatting incidents in the city.
The first saw a number of people calling themselves the “Red and Black Umbrella Collective” move into the Tredegar Hotel on Clifton Street in Adamsdown. Then a masked group of squatters calling themselves “The Gremlins”, began occupying the Bute Dock Hotel in Cardiff Bay before later occupying the derelict Spin bowling alley on City Road.
While in December 2011 we reported that a number of squatters, believed to be part of the Occupy Cardiff movement, had been evicted from a Welsh Rugby Union-owned building on Westgate Street after the WRU obtained an eviction notice.
Ad Hoc, which first began operating in Holland more than 20 years ago, already runs the scheme in 10 other locations throughout the UK.
Buildings which they have helped protect include offices, churches, cemetery lodges, care homes, schools, pubs and libraries.
Nick Hilton, the firm’s UK operations manager, said the recession was one of the reasons why there had been an increase in squatters in Cardiff.
“The main reason we have chosen Cardiff as a base for our Welsh operations is because of the demand from our Welsh clients,” he said.
“We were aware there was a rise in the number of commercial properties being occupied in South Wales and in particular in Cardiff and this can probably be put down to two things.
“The first is the economy and the second the change in the law which makes it illegal to squat in residential buildings.
“Commercial buildings have become a lot more vulnerable recently and this is also partly due to the increase in metal thefts.
“These buildings often have valuable assets which can be stripped and sold for a profit. And so the need for protecting these vulnerable properties by having a guardian in place to act as a deterrent is even more important than ever.”
Yet squatters living in some of the city’s empty buildings hit out at the company’s suggestion that all squatters are thieves and vandals.
A member of Cardiff Squatters Network, which was set up last month to support people living as squatters, said: “Groups such as Ad Hoc rely on the prejudice that squatters only damage the properties they occupy, using the term ‘squatters’ interchangeably with ‘vandals’ and ‘addicts’.
“Their guardians have no tenancy rights and are unwaged security guards for the company.”
The squatter, who did not give their name, added: “In order to solve the ‘squatting problem’, companies like this make a profit off people in similar circumstances of financial insecurity as those who squat.
“These companies are security companies who have found a way around paying for live-in security guards by posing as affordable housing providers and getting people to pay them for unreliable sub-standard housing.
“As squatters we are less concerned about ‘vulnerable property’ than vulnerable people needing places to live and find shelter.”
A spokesman for the Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes (Squash) campaign also criticised the firm’s intent.
He said: “Their proliferation is deeply troubling, creating a two-tiered society where tenancy rights belong only to those who can afford them.”
Rejecting the claim property guardian companies are “parasites of the housing crisis”, Mr Hilton said Ad Hoc are not a social housing scheme.
He added: “I don’t quite know how anyone can say that. What we are doing is matching people in need of a home with empty buildings while ensuring that those who move in are fully checked out and make a positive impact on the community.”
Nikki Lewis, director of operations at CPS Homes, said: “Ad Hoc are obviously offering a service with the best of intentions and I’ve no doubt that their guardians do deter squatters and crime to some extent, but it’s a sad state of affairs that a company like this has to exist.”