What’s Going On
Things are heating up in squatland. This month a string of positive stories followed the news that the famous Friern Barnett Library (squatted by Occupy London) was saved from closure the story broke that Mike Weatherly (the Conservative MP crusading to ban squatting) has been receiving hundreds of thousands from property tycoons before and after his election. Then today (Monday 4th March) a shocking new report is got launched in Parliament by SQUAH (Squatters Campaign for Action on Housing). It present damning evidence on the effects of the recent law to criminalise squatting in residential buildings (more below). Minutes after the report was sent to the printers last week news came in that a homeless man - Daniel Gauntlett – had died in the doorway of an empty bungalow.
The following headings are based on the answers I prepared for the BBC Newsnight interview on squatting and the arts to be broadcast this Friday 8th March:
What Gives you the right to Live in Someone Else’s Property?
I have lived in 4 different empty buildings. All of them have been owned by companies that own several properties and have kept the place empty for between 5 and 15 years. Two of them were registered in tax havens. The building where I currently live is due to be demolished. After we arrived we met with the owners inside the property. They saw we were not people who wanted to trash the place but instead wanted to put a roof over our head and they agreed to let us stay until it was time to go for demolition.
I think we need to stop talking about criminality and start talking about the shortage of affordable housing and growing inequality. People are being forced to work 40 – 50 hours a week and give 60% of their salary towards keeping a roof over their heads. Is it right to bypass civil law and throw people out of empty buildings and into jails? Should the Sate be used to enforce long term empties buildings?
What about the cases where people’s homes get stolen while they go on holiday?
The Daily Mail (a gang of Romanian’s moved in while I went to the shop) narrative is a scare story. Before the new law was passed, anti-trespass laws meant that police could already intervene to evict squatters who were desperate or stupid enough to move into someone’s home, or intended home. I know of no one who has. This is why the Criminal Bar Association, the Law Society, the Magistrates Association, the Metropolitan Police, and numerous academics and charities came out to say the new law banning residential squatting was unnecessary. The Tories now want to do the same to squatting in empty non residential buildings.
Free workshops, open days, soup kitchens and public spaces provided by squats don’t make it to the media, so we write blogs.
What about all the antisocial behaviour that happens in squats?
I know of no evidence that suggests that squatters are more antisocial than any other sector of the housing population. I have lived in private rented accommodation where people are violent, take drugs and are noisy. I have squatted with people who started squatting to get away from domestic violence or life on the streets. Is it acceptable for us that the Tories want to close squats at the same time as it is closing crisis centres for women and emergency housing for vulnerable families? Are we prepared to pay the cost of a boom in street homelessness and housing benefit claimants?
Is there a link between art squatting?
If you were to take all the squatters (and ex-squatters) out of your CD collection you would hardly have any CDs left. If you were to take all the squatters (and ex squatters) out of the festival circuit the stages would be half empty. Look at the massive cultural export of places like Camden, Hackney and Brixton. Would London be the cultural capital of the world without squatting in the 70s and 80s? Many, such as Director of Westminster’s Cockpit Theatre, Dave Wybrow, say that it wouldn’t:
“We need to recognise the role that squatting has had in the social and cultural health of our cities. For decades they have provided spaces where young people and creative practitioners can exist by recycling empty and abandoned buildings. Without this the creative industries die.”
The people doing the lighting displays in the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics – ex squatters. The rock anthems that we grew up on, sung all over the world – many were written in squats.
“Far from criminalising squatting we should be legitimising squatting as something that provides flexibility and fluidity in the housing market. Social housing is getting passed to private hands which are failing to deliver. The guardianship schemes and private developments now being used to convert empty commercial buildings can’t meet the deficit in short life housing for young people in cities in the way that squatting can.”
Is there a link between the Occupy Movement and Squatting?
One of the reasons that Occupy Movement has been so explosive is because it because a wide spectrum of society has stuck its flag in the ground and said “this space is ours” in a world where our they are privatising everything with a heartbeat.
People squat as a reaction to the deficit in affordable housing but for many it is also a political act. Are we going to allow companies and individuals to keep buildings empty sometimes for decades at a time while they appreciate in value? while people are left on housing lists for 10 years? while police officers are being left in emergency accommodation, housed in BnBs at public expense because there is no housing for them? Why has all the public housing being sold off? I think it’s time for us to decide as a society are we going to allow the Tories to run our housing stock for profit or are we going to demand they run it for people.
The new report by Squash can be found here www.squashcampaign.org. One of its arguments is that, in this new law, the private sector has is passed the cost of securing long-term empty building to the state. In short: we pay for prosecutions, prison sentences and housing benefit claims so that they get to rig the housing market for profit by leaving buildings empty. The report has already started to receive endorsements from prominent politicians and academics:
‘This legislation was based upon prejudice and has only made matters worse. This new evidence demonstrates so clearly the need to repeal this misguided law.’ John McDonnell MP
‘A few months after the Government brought in the disgraceful law criminalising the homeless occupying an empty house we can see that some of the most needy are indeed suffering in the way that we feared.’ Baroness Miller
‘The conclusions suggest that many of the assumptions on which the recent law against squatting was based – for example that people squat as a lifestyle choice, and occupy other people’s homes – were unfounded and that Section 144, as predicted by many, is having a detrimental impact on homeless and vulnerable people.’ Dr Kesia Reeve
The new laws on squatting are an assault on civil society and public space. Now is the time to act. Support your local squats by speaking out about the crisis of affordable homes and the new laws on squatting.
Write to your local MP asking them to support the repeal of Section 144, Criminal Justice Act and to oppose the proposed criminalisation of squatting in non residential buildings.
Sign and share this petition http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/44597