Squatting has always been a direct solution to housing need, providing homeless people with immediate free housing that they can have some control over. Squatting has changed over the decades, from taking over entire empty streets neglected by councils in the 1970s to now moving into empty business premises before developers manage to tear them down and throw up yuppie flats in their place.
Changes in the law and attitudes (particularly from property owners who are taking a much greater interest in their empty properties these days), as well as the hyper-gentrification of inner-city neighbourhoods have made it much harder to squat at a time when there is greatest housing need. Solidarity with your local squatters is more important than ever. Here are some of the reasons to support your local squat – and the growth of the wider housing movement – and how to get involved:
1. Rents are rising, homelessness is rising, buildings lie empty.
We know the housing crisis is not due to a lack of housing, but an issue of distribution and power. There are still plenty of empty buildings across the UK – even London, where the housing crisis is most acute. A variety of homelessness statistics all point to rising homelessness; the number of people rough sleeping, the number of people accepted as homeless by local councils, number of possession orders, and youth homelessness.
The combination of rising rents, benefit cuts, low incomes, weak renters’ rights, and the decimation of social housing are some of the factors causing this soaring homelessness and everything is pointing to the situation only getting worse. The racist and disgusting ‘right to rent’ policy prevents those without the ‘correct’ documents from renting altogether as part of the government’s attempt to create a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants. Housing need is at its greatest and there are empty buildings. The answer should be as simple as to squat the lot.
2. Where can we squat? The guardianship industry and gentrification.
Watching the ascent of the property guardianship industry over the last couple of years in London has been horrifying. A previous Novara Wire article looks at this exploitative industry and its growth. On scouting missions in south London you sometimes come across more guardianships than squats, which has never been the case before. What would have been great non-residential buildings to squat have signs with various guardianship companies on them. This means people are paying near-market rent for what could have been (or once was) a rent-free squat. This is starkly illustrated by the former House of Brag squat in Kennington where wooden shacks in a large hall are now rented for £550 a month. We don’t resent the individuals renting these buildings, but the exploitative companies running them. There is no doubt that the rise in guardianships has taken out a significant bulk of squattable buildings in inner-city neighbourhoods we call and want to make our home.
The hyper-gentrification of inner-city neighbourhoods (of which guardianship companies play an albeit small part), particularly in London, sees poor people priced and pushed out, whatever their housing tenure – whether they are tenants or squatters. Areas that had been of no interest whatsoever to local councils or developers decades ago are now crawling with property developers looking to build on any patch of land they can find. Most of our neighbourhoods feel like massive building sites. Any empty buildings that are still left to squat are quickly evicted by property developers ready to knock the building down. So many of our former squats are now luxury flats. It is becoming incredibly difficult to find a decent empty building to live in for a good amount of time. Squatters are facing quicker evictions and nowhere else to go as they find themselves pushed out with the rest of their communities.
3. Increasing criminalisation and evictions.
Since the 1970s squatting has become increasingly criminalised, and even though the law has just changed, squatting is still legal! The most recent significant change (LASPO Section 144) makes it a criminal offence for a trespasser to live or intend to live in a residential building. This has deterred many people from squatting the thousands of empty houses in London due to the real threat of custodial sentences. This law, combined with guardianships and gentrification, has made it much harder to find empty buildings to live in
Even if you avoid residential buildings, the use of long-standing laws and legal processes used against squatters have been making it difficult to squat the remaining buildings. Interim possession orders (IPOs), which can be acquired from court by the owners, make it a criminal offence to still be in the building 24 hours after being served. Squat crews are regularly facing IPOs, and the use of violent high court bailiffs to enforce regular possession orders is rising. As buildings are re-squatted more frequently due to a lack of options, high court bailiffs have been repeatedly using old possession orders on new squatters by reactivating the warrant without the occupiers knowing. The high court bailiffs simply declare that the previous possession order still stands, claiming the squatters are the same ones as before. Although this is dubious behaviour it is supported by the court process. As a result, new squatters can find themselves violently evicted by high court bailiffs with no notice at all.
These tactics of criminalisation and eviction have seen resistance increase. The residential squat ban only applies if you are ‘living or intending to live there’ – which is really hard to prove, as shown by the Brighton 3 case. And people are becoming increasingly bold, as the case of the six month long squatters’ village on the residential Sweets Way estate last year showed when 100 squatters ‘occupied’ residential buildings. Similarly, the Fight for the Aylesbury campaign saw squatters putting residential buildings to good use. There have also been more people staying after IPOs, with a recent south London crew getting months longer in a building by just ignoring the order they were served. However, this does not always work out; five people got given nearly three months in prison for doing the same in Liverpool last year.
4. More than just a roof or a home: squat crews and communal living.
To squat, you need a bunch of people. It would be pretty difficult to do it alone or as a small group (but not impossible, just harder). And it is much more fun and makes life much easier by sharing out various tasks and drawing on different skill-sets to keep a squat running. There is an almost inherently communal nature to squatting.
Squatting non-residential buildings means you often have much more space than you do in regular flats or houses. There might be big halls and rooms, which means people can run activities and events that you wouldn’t be able to do in a regular flat. Squats are more than just a roof or somewhere to sleep. They’re places to live – where daily needs are met collectively and where activities are organised and run together, rather than being a place where the main function is to recover from paid work. We try to live the antithesis of the poisonous ‘hardworking family’ rhetoric. Recent squats have run weekly queer, non-competitive muay thai kickboxing classes, Sunday crafternoons (arts and crafts), a HASL lunch club, a screen printing studio, band rooms, and benefit gigs. The Made Possible By Squatting exhibition in a squat in Dock Street in September 2013 collected together a squat archive which highlighted the many other projects that have had their homes in squats past and present.
5. Solidarity is not a one way process.
The request to support your local squats and the wider squat scene is not self-interested and one way. Supporting your local squat is about fighting for everyone’s right to a good home. Many will happily return the favour to you. Squatting has been historically important in saving and creating social housing. Often, many of the events and projects run in squats are open to the wider neighbourhood. Squatters have played a very active role in many of the recent housing actions and the embryonic housing movement; it’s important that actions and demands for free, self-organised and controlled housing is a part of any housing movement.
6. Practical ways to support.
At every squat eviction resistance we’ve been to, local people have expressed their support for the squatters, explaining how they themselves had squatted in the past, or simply recognising that making people homeless is a gross thing to do. This sort of support is really valuable and we hope this call-out can highlight some of the current realities and difficulties squatters face and ways to develop stronger links in support of squatting and good homes for everyone.
Londoners can join the squatters’ phone tree, No Evictions London Squatters Network (NELSN), to be alerted to any evictions happening, other squat support and events. If you have more time to support the squatters, the Advisory Service for Squatters, which celebrated its 40th birthday last year, is always looking for more volunteers to help write legal defences for squats with court papers. If you see or know of any empty buildings, take down details and photos and take them along to your local practical squatters nights which happen every Tuesday in London.
Whilst the current picture certainly feels bleak, there have been recent squat celebrations including the 6th birthday of London’s longest running land squat, Grow Heathrow, on 4 March and the recent Our House social centre squat, which opened a week before the national demonstration against the Housing and Planning Bill on the 13 March.
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