Squatting feature in today's Guardian
office at evnuk.org.uk
Wed Oct 26 16:51:31 BST 2005
Living for today
People from all over the world are now squatting in empty 'des res'
properties in the UK to avoid cripplingly high rents in urban centres
Wednesday October 26, 2005
Françoise is a well-groomed young French woman who works part-time in
fashion PR in London, pays her taxes and shares a cottage with friends
in north London. She pays no rent though, because she is one of
thousands of people across the UK who is squatting. "Many people who
squat are working in low-paid jobs and simply cannot afford to pay
rent, particularly in London," she says. "We want to do something
creative with our lives, not just working behind a bar or on a
building site. If you don't have to pay rent on top of all your other
living expenses it can mean the difference between having time to live
and merely surviving."
She wants to see a more pragmatic arrangement between owners of empty
properties and squatters, so squatters can move in and take care of
buildings until the owners need them. "The laws around empty
properties don't have much humanity," she says. "If people have a home
and some food to eat, they can make progress in life. Without these
basics it is very hard to move forward. I used to pay rent, but in
London it's so expensive. There are many beautiful buildings around
and they should be recycled."
Part of nature
She says she has learnt to get by on less since she started squatting
a few months ago. "Hot water and electricity are my basic minimum
requirements in a squat, but I don't mind if there are rats. After
all, they're part of nature."
Françoise, 30, is typical of the new generation of squatters in London
and other urban centres across the UK. In the 1970s and 1980s,
squatters were usually English and often squatted as part of an
"alternative" lifestyle involving environmental protests, a vegan diet
and a sharp critique of capitalism. These squatters are still part of
the scene, but squatting has diversified enormously in the last five
years as a result of globalisation and new patterns of migration. And
many squat not to make a statement against what they regard as the
failures of an affluent society to house everybody, but because they
Migrant workers from Poland putting in 12-hour days on building sites,
or Slovenian waitresses earning a pittance, simply cannot afford rents
in cities such as London, where even the dingiest single room can cost
£100 a week or more.
According to the Empty Homes Agency, which campaigns to bring empty
properties back into use to meet housing need, there are 689,675 empty
homes in England, so squatters have plenty of choice when they seek
out free accommodation. But squatting is a precarious way of life;
most stays last between a few weeks and a few months. Even the most
determined squatters are usually evicted in the end, but some have
become legal experts and represent themselves in court.
Evicting squatters used to be a civil matter, but the 1994 Criminal
Justice Act gave police the powers to evict squatters. However, the
spectre of police vans drawing up outside squats at dawn to drag out
sleeping squatters has not materialised.
Steve Kennedy, squatter and trainee lawyer, says: "Officers have told
me and others that they have better things to do." He agrees that the
squatting scene has evolved since the early 1990s. "People who weren't
squatting out of necessity then have moved on and there has been a
large influx of people from places like, Spain, Italy and eastern
Europe," he says. "People squat because they have nowhere else to live
and because local authorities have so little social housing provision.
Marcello, 43, an Italian who has been dubbed "the squatters' estate
agent", helps match homeless squatters with empty properties all over
London. He says: "I have 1,200 numbers stored in my phone of people
involved in squatting. They call me when they need a place to live and
let me know when they find empty properties." He tries to find
accommodation for people in the area of London they want to live in,
and money never changes hands. "Helping people without expecting
anything in return is a good feeling," he says.
Although many squatters are single and in their 20s or 30s, Marcello
is sometimes contacted by families. "I found a place for a mum and two
kids the other day," he says. "The council was supposed to provide her
with bed and breakfast accommodation, but there was a five-day gap
when they were left with nothing.
"It makes sense for an owner to let us live in an empty property for a
while. We look after the buildings and prevent them from being
vandalised and used by drug addicts. It means the owner doesn't have
to pay for security on their building, and if something leaks we fix
His current squat is a modern council flat in south London, complete
with washing machine, fitted kitchen and comfortable rooms. He says
squatting is increasingly international and that at least 10,000
people are squatting across London. "Italians, Spanish and Brazilians
get along together because we're all Latins," he says. "We love
sitting at the table talking and eating for hours, and we're all
Hackney and Mayfair top his list of London areas with the most
potential for squatting. "Sometimes we go into empty homes in Mayfair
just for a party," he says.
Jonathan Ellis, chief executive of the Empty Homes Agency, says that
while he understands why people feel the need to squat, he hopes that
new legislation will lead to far fewer empty homes. Part IV of the
2004 Housing Act is due to come into force and will allow local
authorities to issue empty dwellings management orders to bring the
properties back into use. "A home is a fundamental human right and
having empty properties in a neighbourhood is bad news," he says.
Marcello welcomes the new law and hopes more will be done to provide
homes for people who need them, but doesn't expect the supply of
housing for squatters to dry up any time soon. "I plan to carry on
squatting for the next 20 years and then I'll retire to a house on the
beach and grow zucchini, tomatoes and potatoes."
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