Squatting feature in today's Guardian

Gerrard Winstanley 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 


Diane Taylor
Wednesday October 26, 2005
The Guardian 

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 
are impoverished.

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 

Increasingly international

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 
fanatical cleaners."

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."

 Useful links	
Advisory service for squatters

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