Guardian Houses represent a project that responds to problems of maintenance of vacant buildings in Leipzig; it originates from the period of time when Leipzig saw massive housing vacancies up to 20% of the total housing stock (Stadt Leipzig, 2008: 15). In 2004, the civic association HausHalten e.V. was founded; it introduced the idea of Guardian Houses. The aim of this tool is to save an old and probably derelict building by re-using it and therefore to prevent the building from damage through vandalism and ongoing decay. The approach creates a framework where homeowners and potential tenants sign a flexible contract to settle the conditions of the use of these vacant houses. The contract regulates the permission for temporary use of the house. The mutual agreement means that no rent has to be paid (except additional costs and a small fee for the association), but that the tenants or users have to protect, to maintain, and to renovate the rooms, the flat or the house by themselves. Apart from the Guardian House model, there are also Guardian Shops (since 2008) and low-cost refurbishment programmes for housing groups (so-called Ausbauhäuser) to offer also schemes for housing that are not foreseen within the Guardian House model itself. Here, the focus is on low-cost models for renovation which meets the needs of both the owners and those people who wish to get engaged in the refurbishment of their flats and pay a very low rent later on. Both models serve to strengthen social cohesion through the maintenance of liveable neighbourhoods in terms of making people stay and attracting new residents and to ease the arrival of urban pioneers in the areas.
The association has 10-12 active members and an office with one employee. The employee is being financed (0.75 fte) by the fees paid by the members of the association and the owners or users benefiting from the Guardian House scheme. There are no further financial resources; the members of the association are all volunteers. The practical work is organised via working groups. At the time when the interview was carried out, the association worked in a common project with the municipality of Leipzig within the framework of a national funding scheme (ExWoSt) dealing with strategies of how tenants’ or owner-occupants’ groups and the housing economy could better cooperate. From a legal perspective, the initiative is a registered civic association. The interviewee underlined that there is no hierarchy between the members: “We are speaking to each other on equal terms” (LeO4). Because of the professional background of the members (architects, planners, sociologists, geographers), there is much knowledge about the subject of work.
The association provides consulting services for potential users of Guardian Houses. They set up the contact to the owner, set up tenure contracts, and call for users. At present, there are 17 Guardian Houses, 9 of them turned to other uses, 8 are still within the scheme, and 1-2 new ones are planned. The new scheme Ausbauhäuser for owner-occupier currently includes 7 buildings. There are different options for using the buildings once the Guardian House scheme is finished: some of the buildings are bought by the users or the building is renovated by the owner and turned into regular housing (rental or owner-occupied) again or sold to another owner. Some owners also allow the users to become regular tenants.
The association does not define a target group: “We do not want to make any pre-selection or prioritising” (LeO4). Those people who are interested in one of the schemes the association offers are the potential target group. The work of the association started in Leipzig’s inner west; generally, there is no spatial focus or specific target area. Recently, the association has focused more on the inner east of the city since endangered buildings appropriate for the Guardian House approach because there are fewer and fewer appropriate houses in the west.
There is good cooperation with the administration, especially the Department for Urban Regeneration and Renewal. There is also good cooperation with other civic associations in Leipzig’s west and Leipzig inner east; the working group dealing with consulting has, moreover, contact to the Tenement Building Syndicate (Mietshäuseryndikat), individual owners, the municipal housing company and, depending on single projects, other partners. The best ties exist with other “active persons dealing with similar issues” (LeO4).
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
The primary tool of Guardian Houses is to maintain the buildings. In close relation to this, however, it seeks to maintain residential and social diversity in the neighbourhoods. Thus, diversity is indirectly addressed through the long-term vision of vibrant, diverse, and liveable urban neighbourhoods with well-maintained and used buildings. In this framework, the interviewee said that
“… we would wish that there would be more groups of people who commonly refurbish buildings but we are not those who push gentrification … we want to save the buildings. … We are not actively displacing people with our activities. … Diversity means for us that people with different lifestyles and attitudes are living together within one district” (LeO4).
As a reaction to increasing criticism with respect to their role in the gentrification processes in Leipzig’s inner west, the association decided to change their rules and to add that the maintenance of socio-economic diversity in the areas of their work belongs to the general aims as well. In our opinion, this criticism is a bit unfair but emotionalised with respect to the recent debates on gentrification in Leipzig so the association had to respond. Maybe they would not have added this aspect if this debate did not exist and was not as heated as it is at the moment.
Main factors influencing success or failure
Without the activities of the association, a number of buildings would not exist anymore. Success factors for the Guardian Houses are the innovative approach that created a type of “win-win” situation for both owners and users – the building is used and its value and state of maintenance kept, and for the users space is created without larger costs. The framework (high vacancies, shrinking city) was surely helpful for the persuasive power of the tool; the support from the administration, too. A good and broad cooperation network was established, also in terms of international cooperation (Switzerland, Italy, France, Spain, Netherlands). The interviewee underlined that the association, according to its own assessment, is an indispensable partner for the administration in dealing with the maintenance of derelict buildings. The response to local problems and the specific construction of cooperation between association, owner, and administration might be the reason for the fact that “the model of Guardian Houses does really work only in Leipzig, since it stems from here and was established within the concrete conditions that we are faced with here” (LeO4). This might be the reasons or factor behind the failure of the tool at other places.
A potential factor for failure or conflicts is that the initiative cannot really influence the relation between owners and tenants. In another case, a former Guardian House was sold at a “very, very high price … which is not assessed as good by the association” (LeO4). The interviewee said that “the priority is the maintenance of the building, yes, but if financial interests are clearly playing the main role, we do not participate in such projects” (LeO4). As mentioned above, the association often has to deal with compromises and trade-offs between different interests and possibly opposing views on the development of a street or neighbourhood. This might be interpreted as success in one case, but as a failure in another. The association sees its role, too, as being the intermediate between different actors and their interests; they consider transparency and openness to be the main foundations of discussion between the involved actors. Last but not least, the reported lack of acknowledgement of the association’s work through the municipality might be a potential risk for their engagement. The municipality, for instance, uses photographs of the material made/elaborated by the initiative without asking for allowance, “the mayor benefits from our work, successes and the rise of the creative scene in Leipzig’s west, therefore we get misleadingly increasing criticism with respect to the gentrification/displacement danger” (LeO4).
The concept of Guardian Houses was created in Leipzig; it represents an innovative and appropriate response to high vacancies and unused buildings in residential neighbourhoods and a counteraction against the decline of the social and built environment of the affected areas. It has been copied already in other cities, even abroad. Especially the role of a bottom-up association as an intermediary between civic or private actors (private owners, owner-occupiers, housing projects) and the administration shows how civic involvement may impact on urban development.
 Experimental housing and urban development (Experimenteller Wohnungs- und Städtebau – ExWoSt)