“No homes without people! No people without homes!” [Chant on the streets of Spain]
“Don’t make me look like a prat for not knowing how many properties I’ve got” [David Cameron in an interview, 2009]
I live in disused buildings, part of the 10% of the world’s population that lives on squatted land and, consciously or otherwise, is taking direct action against the deficit in affordable housing and availability of land. As such, I am part of a network of communities that recycle unused food, furniture and space. I live in London – a city haemorrhaging with homelessness, a city where entire families are forced to live in converted utility rooms, where single mums get re-housed from BnBs on a monthly basis, a city with 80,000 buildings, and “twice as many bedrooms as people” (Danny Dorling, University of Sheffield). Very soon, if the Coalition Government has its way, I could be writing this from prison.
Last week the Justice Minister, Crispin Blunt, started writing to MP’s in an attempt to gather evidence to support a further ban on squatting in non residential premises. This law, like the law concerning residential properties, could be rushed through without proper consultation before the summer is over – criminalising tens of thousands of people who have made a temporary shelter out of empty and unused office blocks and industrial warehouses.
No more social centres and cuts cafes. No more activist convergence centres during international summits. No more free parties in cities. No more skill shares, free shops, film nights, banner making workshops. A city in lockdown, where vulnerable people get thrown out of empty buildings and into jails for asserting a human right to shelter. But then where is the profit in human rights? Britain now has the highest prison population in Europe. Since I started secondary school in 1993 the prison population has doubled. Why could this be?
A/ The population has doubled
B/ We have mysteriously doubled our misbehaviour
C/ It has become profitable for politicians and their friends on the boards of directors to incarcerate people into
private prisons (paid for by the public), rather than remedying social deprivation and growing inequality.
Answers on the back of a postcard to PO Box Cameron’s bottom.
I have met the owner of the building that I am writing in now, just as I have with the last two commercial buildings where I have lived.
In all three cases we have explained our situation and reached an amicable agreement to leave on a particular date when planning permission is received or a quote has been given on demolition. The landlord has been free to visit and has been in regular contact. Stories like these are common but don’t get reported. Under the new law the police will have powers to enter regardless of such verbal agreements and arbitrarily evict squatters making them homeless or worse. Queue political persecution.
I once lived in a large premise in Central London that had been left empty for 20 years. When faced with eviction we invited the neighbours around for a consultation over how to save the space for the community after we had left. Over thirty people turned up.
“I’m really glad you are here” said one neighbour. “I have been burgled three times and they have always used this empty space to get over my fence”.
“What a valuable place this could be!” said another, “I have been living here for years and this is the first opportunity I have had to meet any of my neighbours!”
Preceding our eviction a man from the security firm (that covered the building) passed by. I struck up conversation with him and while we were chatting a neighbour passed bye and said how great it was that we were making use of the space. Another neighbour, seeing the uniform, shouted down a message of support from the balcony of his tower block. Seeing this, and hearing our story, the security guard pulled me to one side. He told me he supported what we were doing. “I used to live on the streets”, he said “I hate this job and I’m only doing it so me and the wife can move out of this city… I think it’s disgusting the amount of empties in this city. You should see the amount of buildings we work with. It’s a joke!” He then took my number and offered to give me advanced warning of the eviction date. I thanked him and told him how helpful that was since one of us was bed-bound recovering from a major operation.
Last week I spoke to another security guard outside a squat that we were handing back. He said he had worked in buildings in Central London over ten stories high that were left void. He then told me he considered squatters to be “freedom fighters” [!] Such instances of solidarity are not isolated. In Pamplona, Spain last year locksmith companies publicly declared that they would not take part in any further evictions of families from their homes.
In this country, as in the rest of the world, the security apparatus of private property is made up of low paid (often immigrant and exploited) labour who are worried about meeting their own housing needs. The Police frequently persecute squatter with illegal evictions, turning a blind eye to illegal evictions (carried out by private gangs sent to brutally evict squatters) or by brutally evicting squatters themselves. They are public sector workers on low income. Most don’t have a foot in the property market. The deficit in secure housing is their crisis too. It is also the crisis of elderly women freezing to death in sub standard housing, or dying of stress over rental costs. It is the crisis of the unemployed and young people forced off housing benefits, snared into a life of debt with no hope of owning their own home. It is the crisis on the millions of “hidden homeless” burdening the homes of aging parents or facing the cushions of friends sofas. It is the crisis of the middle classes desperate to find some financial security by buying properties while their pensions are gambled away by banks.
There are over 1 million empty buildings in this country – not paying bedroom tax. Join in solidarity against high rents, evictions, and the bogus crisis of available housing.
First they evicted the gypsies and I did nothing as I was not a gypsy
Then they evicted the squatters, and I did nothing as I was not a squatter.
Then they evicted the single parents, and I did nothing as I was not a single parent
Then they evicted the unemployed, and I did nothing as I was not unemployed
Then they evicted me and there was nobody left to help me.
Write to your MP asking them to sign the early day motion to repeal Section 144 on squatting
Please sign and share the petition to repeal Section 144 http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/44597
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
‘for the first time in 100 years there is no group of people in local or national government committed to providing high-standard, cheap housing for those who do the essential work in London’
Lindsey German ‘A Peoples History of London’
Will Judy lose her home while she pops out to the shops?
Will Richard manage to re-launch his TV career?
Will we get a sober and balanced account of the housing crisis?
…sorry I’m just being silly now
I’ve just finished watching myself and other members of the squatting community feature in an ITV documentary about squatting in which I was interviewed inside a squat. At the time of filming I was living in this derelict commercial property which had been left empty for 7 years by foreign shipping company.
Cut to Bristol. How bizarre…
In the red corner – representing the right to keep a temporary shelter over your head (subject to legal proceedings that will imminently have him evicted)– its the Squatter.
In the blue corner – representing the right to own seven properties and keep them empty – it’s The Land Lord.
Richard starts talking about a group of people who are “experts at exploiting the law and taking over other peoples’ properties”. Is he talking about the Banks? Maybe it’s a property development company? Perhaps it’s a bailiff company (I hear that’s a boom industry right now)?
What, squatters?! That can’t be! But squatters don’t take other people’s homes! I know because I am one. Isn’t it the case that a squatter who moves into someone’s intended home would instantly get an Interim Possession Order (granting emergency powers to have them evicted)? Hasn’t a law just been passed to make squatting in any of Britain’s 300,000 long-term residential properties illegal? Doesn’t every squatter I know live in a derelict commercial building owned by a company?
I must have misheard. Richard is known for his balanced and informed journalism. He is a Daily Mail journalist after all.
But hang on, what!? There’s a Tory MP waging a war of hate against us!
Oh no, false alarm. He’s just claimed that tens of thousands of the housing sectors must vulnerable “arn’t being demonised enough”. Then he said “they’re just anarchists trying to stick it to the system”. That would be false information… and political persecution come to think of it. It must be footage from the 1930’s. Phew!
What, hold on! He’s talking to Richard!
“But surely they’re not all bad are they” Richard exclaims
“Well I’m sorry but they are!” replies the Tory!!
It’s Mike Weatherly, the Tory MP campaigning to have squatting in commercials made illegal! Strange. I have it on good authority that the camera crew took Mr Weatherly into a really nice squat that was making great use of a derelict building. I was told that he said, on cameram that he saw nothing wrong with the place or what they were doing. What a massive media scoop! Where is this footage? Maybe he had some say over the final cut? If he did then that was a privilege not granted to us.
In fairness to Mr Weatherly MP, he did say it was important that property owners of Britain’s 1 million empty buildings should be able to go to sleep at night without worrying that their building will get taken from them. It is a danger, after all, that they will get driven off with, never to be seen again. Business executives across the country are probably lying in bed staring at the ceiling. The housing crisis is a terrible thing. Criminalise all squatters! Throw them out of the empty warehouses and into jail. Bang! Six months.
Thank God they didn’t start babbling all that sensationalist nonsense about 0.4% of the population owning 70% of Britain’s land, or all that guff about record evictions, record street homeless and the debt crisis. No-one needs another story about housing benefit being cut for the under 25’s, or about social housing for homeless families being cut after a year. That would be entertainment dressed up as reportage for the sake of ratings. This is serious
This video was filmed in a derelict commercial property left empty for 12 years by a man who owns several buildings and has registered this one in a tax haven. There is strong support from the neighbours for the 15 people who laboured to make it a habitable and productive space
Please lobby your MP to oppose the criminalisation of squatting in commercial buildings now being discussed
Squatters for Affordable Housing Campaign: http://www.squashcampaign.org/
In September the Government criminalised squatting in residential buildings making it illegal for this country’s 40,000 homeless families to squat any of our 300,000 long-term empty residential premises. The law was opposed by over 90% of people who responded to the Governments consultation as well as hundreds of leading Police and Judiciary who stated that existing fast track eviction laws adequately protected homeowners.
New laws being debated now seeks to do the same in non – residential / commercial buildings. Making temporary shelter in an empty office block will cease to be a civil matter to be resolved by the courts and will become an arrestable offence. Below are just some of the reasons why this will affect all of us.
You Want Lower Rent and Lower House Prices
In Britain 70% of the land is owned by 0.4% of the population. A ban on squatting will further concentrate property ownership leading to higher rent and higher property prices. This will affect middle Britain whilst benefiting a minority of landowners. Private companies often own lots of land and unused buildings which they speculate on for decades at a time. This ‘false scarcity’ keeps property prices high and at the same time leads to market failure and a housing crisis for the majority of British people.
You are struggling to meet Rent or Mortgage Payments
Do you have a low income? Was the price of your education a lifetime of debt? Is your rent increasing along with the money you owe? Are you part of the 1.7 million people
waiting on a housing list? Maybe you are, or have at some time been part of “the hidden homeless” that has to rely on friends and family for accommodation? Keeping a roof over your head is not just a concern for squatters but for most ordinary people today. We are already seeing record levels of unemployment evictions and homelessness. At the same time the Government is selling off low cost social housing and cutting housing benefit for the under 25’s. And it doesn’t stop there. Commentators are predicting a boom in evictions in homelessness as the Government announces that it is to kick homeless families out of social housing after 1 year. More on that here.
It would make the defence by local communities of their urban heritage a crime
Occupying space to protect it as an act of protest against unwanted developments – a long held tactic used by civil society to defend sites of heritage and natural beauty - could see you banged up. More on that here.
You Don’t Want to Experience Rising Homelessness
Homelessness in many areas of the UK is rising sharply with 50,000 families and individuals in need of emergency accommodation in 2012 (a 25 percent rise since 2009).
Research from homeless charity Crisis in 2011 shows that
- 40% of single homeless people have squatted at some time
- 6% of the current homeless population are currently squatting
- 41% of homeless squatters report mental health needs
- 34% have been in care
- 42% have physical ill health or a disability
- 47% have experienced drug dependency
- 21% are self- harming
- 15% have learning disability
- 90% are sleeping rough
[Reeve, Kesia. (2011). Squatting: A Homelessness Issue - An Evidence Review. Available: http://www.crisis.org.uk/data/files/publications/Crisis_SquattingReport_SEPT2011.pdf. Last accessed 9th September 2012.]
These are the people whom the Government seeks to further marginalise, fine, and brutalise with the prison system.
You are Worried about Tenants Rights
The new squatting laws do not extend to ‘a person holding over after the end of a lease or license’. That means someone who has not left after their notice period cant be arrested by the police as ‘squatters’. On the ground however this is not secure. Casualised tenancies such as those given by Camelot and other ‘property guardians’ which only give a 2 wk notice period tenancy termination may well be able to label their tenants as ‘squatters’ because the licences the hold is classed as ‘an excluded license’. Property guardianship is a growth industry that has been lobbying hard for the criminalisation of squatting. Why would they do this when they market themselves as protecting homes against squatters. Could it be that they intend to profit from an increasingly liberalised landscape of housing regulation in which tenants have no right and can be evicted easily? More on this here.
People who decide to deal directly with a private landlord in an effort to avoid massive agency costs may end up on cash in hand agreements with Landlords who seek to avoid legal obligations. As unlicensed tenants they could end up in jail if things turn sour. Given the lack of understanding over the new laws (even by the Police who I know from first hand accounts have been misusing existing squat laws to arrest people in commercial buildings) many tenants are probably being forced out of homes under the threat along that they will be arrested as squatters.
Under the 2012 Act, cash-in-hand rental agreements would allow landlords to threaten tenants with arrest by reporting them as squatters given that there would be no proof that they are tenants engage in unlawful eviction, harass the tenant and would require ‘notice to quit’ (eviction notice) uphold legal obligations on the condition of the building.
[p.7. ‘Law of the Land; An Idiots Guide to Section 144 Criminalising Squatting in Residential Premises & How to Fight Back Against the Unjust Attack on the Vulnerable’ (Matthew Varnham, Aug. 2012)]
You Are an Activist, Campaigner or Member of Civil Society
The commercial property where I live belongs to a tax dodger who owns many
buildings. He left it empty for 12 years. Much to the delight of the local residents we opened the space up to make it a home for 15 people to live and many more to use for open days, workshop, film screening and events.
If the use of empty non-residential buildings is made illegal it will spell and end to countless community hubs as well as social centres and even convergence centres where activists to reside during international summits. Cuts Cafes have recently been popping up across the country in response to austerity. These too will be a thing of the past. Temporary autonomous spaces like these are a key part of civil society and a healthy democracy because they give activists a place to meet, hold talks and workshops, make banners and plan actions and demonstrations. The Government knows this very well and does not want people to organise against things like the G8 summit happening on London next year.
Outrageously, Mike Weatherly, Conservative MP for Brighton was recently quoted as saying:
“It’s a good law, and those who says it’s not are just anarchists”
“These are anti-capitalist people and they shouldn’t be able to get away with it”
Such statements imply that being anti-capitalist or subscribing to the political philosophy of anarchism is a crime in itself. Most squatters are ordinary people on low income. Some are anarchists and are peaceful community minded people. If you don’t believe me go to The Anarchist Book Fair and share a cup of tea with some of them. The campaign to vilify squatters is also one of political persecution that leads to increased police powers, surveillance and arrest. More broadly it is a campaign against organised civil society in the face of increasing inequality.
You Support the Arts and Countercultural Activities
I squat in London because I am a self-employed performer and a part time Masters student. If they criminalise squatting I don’t know how I can continue living here. Many of the performers you see in theatres, performing in pubs and clubs or named on your CD collection will have at some time squatted. Would the punk movement and all that came out of it have happened without squats? Annie Lenox and her keyboardist were able to save for the keyboard that they wrote ‘Sweet Dreams’ on because they were squatting. There are countless other examples like this.
A friend of mine Dave Wybrow is the Director of the Cockpit Theatre, Westminster. He has worked for many years in with comedians, actors, theatre companies, dancers and musicians. He also used to squat for 10 years in the 70’s. Last year he visited the squat where I lived and told me this:
“The reason that London is the cultural capital of the world is an inheritance from past decades when there were places where young people could have some breathing space to be creative. Squatting was much easier then. I don’t think our place as the cultural capital can continue the way things are going.”
I think the new laws on squatting are part of the processes of gentrification that are bleaching our towns and cities.
A Ban on Squatting Commercial Properties Will Benefit You If…
You are a business or landlord that has a non –residential building you have left empty and wish to speculate on. Most squatters will seek to negotiate and agreed leave time, nominal rent or terms of occupation. But you won’t have to bother with this. The circumstances of the squatters and the scheduling of a notified eviction date will not be necessary. You can save money spent on evicting them with legal means. Instead the tax payer can pay for the police to arrest them, provide them housing benefit or even possibly imprison them. You may never have to see the face of the person sat in jail for the crime of making a temporary shelter in your empty building. You can continue to leave it (plus any other properties you own) out of use for decades to come.
If you think that occupying long-term residential or commercial building is wrong lobby your MP, distribute this article encouraging others to campaign around it and be proactive in protecting the vulnerable.