London's new Robin Hood moves the homeless into city's poshest mansions
This £4 million ($6.5 million) government-owned home was once the residence of David Blunkett, a former cabinet minister and member of parliament. The blind politician lived here with his seeing-eye dog, and it is in its rooms that he conducted an infamous love affair that led to his resignation. Now the fancy pad is the latest in a series of empty multimillion-dollar mansions that Guard and his band of homeless Londoners have squatted in to raise awareness of all the vacant properties nearby that could be used to house homeless people, the group says.
The Merry Adventures Of Mark Guard
The stunts are beyond brash as Belgravia is no run-of-the-mill neighborhood, but rather a super-posh address favored by Britain's elite. Homes here are furnished with crystal chandeliers and Frette linens. An omelette at the cafe around the corner can cost you £14 ($21). But after playing a cat-and-mouse game with authorities, Guard was due to head to court on Dec. 11 when the eviction process was scheduled to get underway. The process could take months.
Stopping Guard won't be easy as he has come to be seen as an urban Robin Hood, opening the doors of opulent mansions to the poor and needy. The eccentric 45-year-old Brit is a media-savvy guy who once made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for scoring the highest percentage return on an investment. He bought a property for £1,000 ($1,650), which he turned around and sold for £3.5 million ($5.7 million).
Thanks to his ease around the press, his squatting exploits have been chronicled in papers across the United Kingdom, and television networks have come calling, giving him airtime to expound on his cause. He claims to be not only the group's legal advisor, but also an electrician, property developer and, most recently, a documentary filmmaker.
Guard and his homeless posse, which includes a French martial arts enthusiast, a fireman, a nurse and a man in a wheelchair, moved into the latest home -- just a few blocks from Thatcher's pad -- in early December. They entered through a window, which Guard told DailyFinance had been left open by a security guard who unlatched it for ventilation while he smoked on the job.
For months, says Guard, "This place was impregnable. No one could get in." Indeed, the mansion is right around the corner from a police station. Dressed up as builders in hard hats and luminous jackets, Guard and his entourage spent 12 weeks surveilling the property before figuring out a way to make their move. "I spotted a weakness in the security detail," Guard says.
Then, on the appointed day, Guard sent the call out to members of the media, who snapped photos as he hoisted himself into the property through the open window. He took possession of the home as passersby looked on.
A Millionaire On A Mission
Guard is using the stunt to draw attention to other vacant buildings in the area, many of which are part of the Crown Estate's £6 billion ($9.8 billion) property portfolio -- land formerly belonging to the British monarchy that is now managed for the government by an independent organization. He fumes at the fact that 13% of the Crown Estate stands empty, saying it could all be used to provide shelter for the homeless. "I think the Queen should consider taking take the Crown Estate back because this administration is mismanaging it," he says. "I know for a fact that the Queen is concerned about homeless people. She never leaves any of her properties empty, mothballing."
As for Guard, he himself is a millionaire and far from homeless. He owns a home in nearby Knightsbridge, where the fabled department store Harrods has its flagship. He stages the squats, he says, on behalf of others to draw attention to all the empty Belgravia properties -- some 312 of them now in total.
More pointedly, Guard says the vacant homes represent a major injustice: Many of the residences have been bought by foreign investors who keep their money offshore to avoid paying astronomical British taxes. Shopping with bloated Euros or stolen rubles, they snap up London homes -- more affordable today with a weakened British pound -- and then allow them to fall into disrepair.
The Taxpayers Picking Up The Tab
Guard knows the offshore routine because he himself has an overseas trust and enjoys non-domiciled status, which exempts him from paying certain taxes. He spends most of his time living in the Cayman Islands, coming to the the United Kingdom for only 90 days each year.
But the homeless advocate says the problems he's exposing are real, no matter his own financial status. Homes like the one he's currently squatting in are actually costing those who do pay taxes, since it is government owned with taxpayers footing the bill for its maintenance and upkeep. Located at 62 South Eaton Place (not far from a house Mozart once lived in), the mansion has undergone an £85,000 ($138,000) refurbishment, reportedly paid for by the taxpayer. But it has remained unoccupied for three years.
"You can see it's not damp here," says Guard, while showing a visitor around. "The heating has been on for three years, and it's not dusty. Obviously a cleaner has been coming in." Guard says he has examined records related to the property and found it is costing the taxpayer £10,000 ($16,000) per year for taxes and heating.
For the time being, Guard's antics, as some would characterize them, don't seem in danger of coming to an end. He knows the law inside and out. Plus, he claims to be well-connected. "My cousin is Gordon Brown's personal assistant," he smirks when asked why the police seem to leave him alone. "They know not to bother me. They say, 'Leave him alone, we'll never win.'"
Powerless Police For Now
It's true that Guard has become an expert on "legally" taking over vacant properties. He's careful not to cause damage. His first move is to post a notice on a window stating, "We live in this property, it is our home and we intend to stay here" -- and legally, he's right.
Evicting tenants is a lengthy process in the U.K., and anyone who tries to do so can count on spending thousands on legal bills. Once squatters take over a property, a court order is necessary in order to evict them, says Piers Routledge, who works for Gallowglass Security, a firm that specializes in vacant property protection. Until the eviction order is obtained, the police are powerless, as are the owners. And once they do get the order, the eviction process can take months.
"It all depends on the judge and how much time he gives them," says Routledge. In fact, he says, "If squatters are looking after the property and taking good care of it, the judge can look on them favorably. Squatters have a lot of rights."
Guard, who is making a documentary about his squatting adventures, says his actions serve to highlight their plight -- but don't cost the taxpayer. In fact, he says he will pay the £150 ($245) fee it will cost the government to begin proceedings to get him evicted. He was already planning to vacate the property before the process becomes more expensive.
"I am going to do a very nice thing: We will hand the house over to stop the government having to pay £8,000 ($13,075)," he says. "It will have cost the government nothing."
Still, with Guard around, no empty building is safe. He says he already has plans to move into another nearby mansion -- or two. A quick glance around the streets of London will tell you there are plenty of homeless available to help him make his point.