Can you make a difference to where you live?

Dot Dot Dot’s Property Guardianship encourages people to act with positive impact.

I was first introduced to Property Guardianship a few years ago by a friend. As an actor trying to make it in London, he was looking for accommodation that matched his means. He told me about a scheme where you live in an empty building to protect it from vandalism and disrepair, in return for cheap rent — sometimes less than 50% of the private rental prices. He himself had come across it in The Netherlands, where both he and the concept were born.

Fast forward a few years, and I find myself working for a Property Guardianship company as part of the On Purpose Associate Programme. What’s surprised me is that Dot Dot Dot Property isn’t only focused on providing great-value accommodation, it also makes it easier for people to act with positive impact. Dot Dot Dot house people who want to volunteer, and commit to doing so for 16 hours a month, in properties that would otherwise stand empty — in other words, they offer Property Guardianship with a difference. The logic is that with an incentive, and a bit of peer encouragement, people are pushed to act on a desire to volunteer, when they might not have done so (or done so regularly) otherwise. Property guardianship becomes a means to an end, instead of an end in itself.

Housing people in empty buildings is still relatively unknown in the UK, but it won’t stay that way for long. The industry is growing fast, fueled by the housing crisis. The London Assembly Housing Committee estimates that there are now between 5,000–7,000 guardians in the UK, of which 1,000 are in the London alone. The challenge with any new industry is developing norms for how to operate, and establishing credibility. Unfortunately, there have been a few cases of bad behaviour: Property Guardianship schemes placing people in unsafe conditions, or taking advantage of the reduced rights of Guardians. Whilst hearing these stories can make it hard to argue for its benefits, the positive case is resounding when you think about the impact it generates for communities, and the opportunity cost of empty buildings. Buildings are empty for a range of reasons, for example, while waiting for planning permission for renovation or demolition. Months and years can go by whilst the building slowly deteriorates without the attention of people living in it, attracting vermin and anti-social behaviour to the areas around it. And the months and years that go by are long enough to make up someone’s childhood. All the while, people are struggling to find safe and affordable homes.

What’s exciting about Dot Dot Dot is that they have developed an approach to benefit everyone involved: the people they house, the owners of the properties they secure, and the communities in which the tenants live and volunteer. At the core is this idea called ‘placemaking’: a collaborative process to shape the places in which we live, so that they benefit everyone. Dot Dot Dot’s projects have ranged from housing volunteers in care homes, to partnering with youth centres locally. They live their mission all the way: their office is in some shipping containers at the edge of the Olympic Park, alongside multiple artists’ studios, and a (tasty!) community cafe. Dot Dot Dot coordinated this arrangement in collaboration with other community-shaping organisations.

It’s been fascinating being part of a company looking to disrupt an already disruptive industry. It forces you to grapple with some intricate questions, for example: How do you attract customers who have no prior knowledge of this concept? How do you achieve the growth you need for credibility, without compromising social impact? And what is the impact on your role as a service provider when you are reliant upon your customers to deliver social impact?

What I’ve also learnt from the placement is that seeing others volunteer around you does actually work as an incentive. A lot of staff at Dot Dot Dot volunteer in their free time, including the CEO. I hear them talk about the richness it brings to their lives, and I know it’s true because I’ve volunteered before and felt the same way about it. Volunteering has previously been a way for me to explore curiosities and test career options. Since starting On Purpose, I paused volunteering — arguably, I have been exploring curiosities and testing options in a different way! But since working at Dot Dot Dot, I’ve started actively looking for volunteering opportunities again. I haven’t yet found the opportunity that fits, but I know that volunteering is going to be part of my life after On Purpose.

I didn’t need to be housed with Dot Dot Dot to start acting on a desire to volunteer. But if I ever need a place to live, I think I know where to look.

Committed to positive impact, looking for an affordable place to live, or owner of an empty building? Either way, check out Dot Dot Dot Property’s website: