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<nettime> Guardian: 'Squatters are not home stealers'
nettime's_roving_reporter on Thu, 10 Jan 2013 18:53:52 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Guardian: 'Squatters are not home stealers'


   Short link for this page: http://gu.com/p/3c94n
   
'Squatters are not home stealers'

   The criminalising of squatters in Britain is part of a Europe-wide
   backlash. But with at least 10% of the world population squatting, can
   they really be a menace to society?


   On 26 September, Alex Haigh became the first person to be jailed
   under section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of
   Offenders Act. His crime was one of which countless thousands of people
   could now be guilty: squatting. A 21-year-old from Plymouth, Haigh
   was arrested for living in a house in Pimlico that had been empty for
   over a year. He had come to London seeking work as a bricklayer; now he
   has a criminal record.

   When section 144, which makes it an offence to squat in a residential
   building in England and Wales, came into effect at the beginning of
   September, many people agreed with it, including 52% of Guardian
   readers in an online poll. But is squatting really a menace or a
   burden to society? Might it even be beneficial? And when we talk about
   squatting, what do we really mean anyway? Those questions are raised
   again this week, albeit belatedly, by a surprising new adjudicator:
   Richard Madeley. In Madeley Meets The Squatters, the former
   breakfast TV maestro turns investigative reporter, visiting squatters
   and anti-squatters alike, and bringing more nuance to the subject than
   the current administration did when it drafted section 144.

   Grant Shapps, co-chair of the Conservative party, has a very clear idea
   of what squatters are: they are people who come and steal your home
   while you are on holiday. Justifying the law change in this paper,
   Shapps cited some well-publicised recent incidents of homes stolen by
   squatters, including that of Oliver Cockerell, a Harley Street
   doctor, which was occupied during renovation work while his wife was
   pregnant. Dr Cockerell blamed "gangs of anarchists and eastern
   Europeans". Shapps went on to describe squats as "death traps of
   despair" and spoke of squatters' lives as "characterised by gloom and
   anguish". "The gentle and romantic image of communal harmony and a
   counter-cultural lifestyle is an illusion," he declared.

   These negative stories have dismayed many long-term squatters. Take Joe
   Blake and Reuben Taylor, two squatters in their 20s who live in an
   abandoned plant nursery near Heathrow airport. Their set-up, Grow
   Heathrow, is far closer to Shapps' illusory harmonious community than a
   death trap of despair. In fact, you could call it a squat-topia. Blake
   and Taylor's group - now numbering 17 or so - cleared their site of 30
   tonnes of waste and repaired derelict greenhouses to live in. They grow
   organic vegetables, which they sell via the local grocer. They hold
   bicycle workshops, arts and crafts sessions and gardening workshops for
   the local community. They even do the gardening for the local
   constituency office. They have displaced no one and the neighbourhood
   wants them there, since they campaign against the proposed third
   runway.

   It's a frugal existence, mind you. The only electricity is via a wind
   turbine and solar panels - just enough for music and the internet. It
   gets bitterly cold in winter. The "shower" is a Heath Robinson-like
   contraption consisting of a water butt on top of some scaffolding, with
   pipes leading to an old radiator with a fire underneath it. "We're
   building a roof for it so we don't get rained on while we're
   showering," says Blake. It would be very difficult to paint these
   squatters as a burden to society. They don't even have a carbon
   footprint.
   grow heathrow Grow Heathrow was set up in an abandoned plant nursery
   near the airport. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian.

   Blake and Taylor are also members of Squatters' Action for Secure
   Homes, or Squash, a voluntary group that has been leading the campaign
   against section 144. Most of the governments' arguments for
   criminalising squatting they can instantly rebut. They say the
   well-publicised examples of squatters stealing people's homes represent
   an insignificant proportion of the estimated 20,000 to 50,000 people
   squatting in the UK, most of whom live in long-term abandoned
   properties (the government has done no research of its own since 1986).
   Last month, 160 experts on housing law wrote an open letter
   complaining that "media and politicians are misleading about law on
   squatters" and that the existing law was adequate to protect homeowners
   like Cockerell. In the government's own consultation last year, 96% of
   respondents agreed that the law did not need changing, including most
   homeless charities, the Metropolitan Police, the Criminal Bar
   Association and the Law Society.

   "They completely overplayed it," says Blake over a cup of tea in Grow
   Heathrow's greenhouse kitchen. Shapps and co whipped up a moral panic,
   aided by sections of the media, then section 144 was "sneaked" through
   parliament during the bill's last three days, he says. "Squatters
   aren't very well represented in the media, so you just hear these
   horror stories in the papers. But most squatters want to stay somewhere
   for a long time. They don't want to take someone else's home."

   "What you don't get is the story about the pregnant squatter who's
   kicked out on the street," adds Taylor. "Many squatters are homeless
   and vulnerable."

   "From our point of view," Blake continues, "the only people this law
   protects are property speculators and unscrupulous landlords who are
   keeping properties empty."
   Dharavi Asia's Largest Slum 'They're not mafias. They are law-abiding
   citizens, workers' ... squatters in the Dharavi slum in Mumbai.
   Photograph: Bethany Clarke/Getty Images

   Moral panic over squatting is not difficult to engineer, says Dr Hans
   Pruijt of the Erasmus University, Rotterdam, who has studied squatting
   across Europe. In the Netherlands, a country with a formerly
   enlightened squatting tradition, it was outlawed in October 2010, by a
   very similar process to the UK. In Spain, in the mid-1990s, squatting
   was tenuously linked to terrorism before being outlawed. It is
   invariably rightwing governments that push through the laws, Dr Pruijt
   observes, often on the basis of spurious arguments. "I think it's part
   of a revanchist mood in politics," he says. "Everything that people
   hate is blamed on soft, leftwing politics from the 1960s and 70s -
   migration, squatting, Muslims. So it's revenge against what happened in
   the past."

   Pruijt has identified five basic reasons why people squat: out of
   deprivation and an immediate need for shelter; as a strategy for
   pursuing an alternative lifestyle (often by the middle classes); for
   entrepreneurial reasons, such as setting up a community centre or small
   business; for conservation reasons; and what he calls "political
   squatting" - as an arena for confrontation with the state. The
   categories often overlap, as with Grow Heathrow, but none of them are
   intrinsically harmful to society, Pruijt says.

   Some forms of squatting are demonstrably beneficial. In Dutch there is
   a word krakers - literally "crackers" - to describe the type of
   constructive squatter who fixes up damaged buildings. "Squatters
   quietly restore house" is a story that rarely makes the papers,
   although in the 70s in Amsterdam, hundreds of squatters moved into and
   repaired dilapidated buildings in the historic Nieuwmarkt area, and
   fought to save the neighbourhood from large-scale demolition and
   redevelopment. It was the beginning of a successful conservation
   movement in the city. Furthermore, squatters are often involved in
   activities that bring little financial reward but are often beneficial,
   Pruijt points out, such as music or art or community projects. In the
   UK that category now includes teaching, nursing and studying at
   university.

   Some would say all squatting was political, though. Property equals
   power, and squatting has been historically linked with the struggle of
   the dispossessed, anti-establishment movements, and the control of
   space. The practice is as old as the notion of property itself. The
   origins of "squatters' rights" lie in the ancient, unwritten law that
   if you could erect a dwelling overnight on a piece of land, it had the
   right to stay there - similar laws can be found around the world. As
   such, squatting was one of the processes by which European and even
   American cities grew, as makeshift settlements became permanent
   communities, which were often then appropriated by landowners and
   replaced with something more profitable. Particularly talismanic in the
   political context was Gerrard Winstanley and his Diggers, who provoked
   a wave of shortlived Christian communes in the 1640s. Winstanley
   questioned the very foundations of property ownership, and the class
   structure that resulted from it.

   Those sentiments run through the major postwar squatting movements:
   communist, anarchist, hippie, environmental. As a student, I squatted
   for three years in the early 1990s in the Leytonstone area of east
   London. Even in the halcyon days of student grants, London was
   expensive and squatting was a cheap option - with countercultural
   credentials to compensate for the lack of glamour, or hygiene. But
   there was also a political slant: this was along the route of the
   proposed M11 link road, which became a flashpoint in the movement
   against the conservative government's road-building agenda - as
   personified by celebrity crusty Swampy. We were getting a free place to
   live, but we were also fighting against the destruction of the
   community. Events came to a head on my former street, Claremont
   Road, which became the last, stubborn stronghold against eviction. In
   December 1994 (when I no longer lived there), it took several hundred
   police officers several days to remove the non-violent
   squatter-protesters. The appropriation of space is still a protest
   tactic, as shown by the Occupy movement today, but their gestures are
   largely symbolic forms of squatting rather than a long-term strategy.
   Protesters Against The M11 On A Rooftop In Claremont Road Leytonstone
   Squatting as politics ... protesters against The M11 In Claremont Road,
   east London in the early 90s. Photograph: Glenn Copus/Associated
   Newspapers/Rex Features

   But if squatting is on the retreat in Europe, it has exploded in the
   rest of the world. According to a recent UN estimate, some 800 to 900
   million people around the world are technically squatters - over 10% of
   the world's population. The socio-economic conditions are different:
   these are overwhelmingly rural migrants settling on the outskirts of
   cities. But these are still people occupying land they do not own,
   without permission. Questions of whether or not squatting benefits
   society are redundant here; squatting is society. In Mumbai, India, for
   example, slum-dwellers represent roughly 60% of the population. In
   Turkish cities, it is roughly 50%, Brazilian cities, 20%.

   These squat neighbourhoods are often referred to as slums, shanty
   towns, favelas or bidonvilles. They are often characterised as grim
   places, with poor sanitation, high crime rates, drug gangs, and other
   problems. But it's often a misconception, says Robert Neuwirth, author
   of Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters. He spent two years living in
   slums in four of the world's largest cities: Mumbai, Nairobi, Istanbul
   and Rio de Janeiro. "They're not criminal enterprises. They're not
   mafias," he says. "These are people, law-abiding citizens, workers.
   People who wait on the tables and clean the rooms in the tourist
   hotels. People help each other and take care of each other. These were
   wonderful places to live, once you step beyond the fact that they don't
   have a sewer system."

   In many cases, slum squatters are literally second-class citizens, with
   no power to improve their neighbourhood, and vulnerable to
   exploitation. In Rio de Janeiro for example, favelas are being
   razed in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. But
   in other cases temporary dwellings have evolved into more permanent
   neighbourhoods, just as they did in pre-industrial Europe. Rio's
   Rocinha district, for example, is technically a favela but is no longer
   recognisable as such; it has multi-storey concrete dwellings, plumbing
   and electricity. "Where they can, you find people rebuilding their
   homes over 20 or 30 years, one wall at a time," says Neuwirth. "From
   mud to cardboard, to wood, to brick, to reinforced concrete, as they
   save."
   Torre David The 'vertical slum' ... Torre David in Caracas is a
   45-storey tower block that houses some 2,500 squatters. Photograph:
   Daniel Schwartz/Urban-Think Tank

   Is this entirely different to the European understanding of squatting?
   For one thing, the two are beginning to overlap. In the centre of
   Caracas, for example, stands the Torre David, a 45-storey bank
   tower that was abandoned halfway through construction. It is now home
   to some 2,500 squatters, who moved in, completed the building and
   divided its spaces using found materials. It has been called a
   "vertical slum" - with its own shops, amenities, water and electricity
   (there are still no lifts).

   In the broader sense, what ties together these disparate instances of
   squatting is human beings' capacity to organise and provide for
   themselves. "Wherever you go in the developing world, and, I would
   argue with most of the squatters in the UK and the US, you're talking
   about a notable act of self reliance by people facing a system that
   does not provide housing they can afford," says Neuwirth. "This is
   something we should be saluting, rather than looking at it as some kind
   of horrific, criminal approach."

   "It's the basic paradigm of our time: we shouldn't trust so much in the
   state. We shouldn't trust so much in big companies, we should take
   responsibility ourselves," says Pruijt. "Squatters have pioneered
   this."

   It is difficult to see how outlawing squatting will benefit the British
   taxpayer. Squash predicts section 144 will cost the public purse an
   extra £790m in the first five years, due to greater demands on homeless
   rehabilitation, housing benefit and other government services. Plus
   police resources diverted to protecting properties and evicting
   squatters, and judicial resources diverted to processing and convicting
   them. "The legal aid bill was supposed to be a cost-cutting bill, but
   this one clause will wipe out the entire expected saving," says Blake.

   One phenomenon that has taken hold in Holland that's likely to come our
   way is anti-squatting - in which a handful of occupants are officially
   permitted to occupy an empty property, thereby preventing real
   squatters moving in. Anti-squatters usually pay a nominal rent, but
   forfeit basic property rights: prospective buyers can visit at any time
   and they can be evicted at a moment's notice. So technically,
   anti-squatters are second-class citizens, not far removed from
   developing-world slum-dwellers. Still, that's a better option than the
   alternative housing strategy the coalition is offering Alex Haigh:
   prison.
   Rocinha favela Rio de Janeiro The Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro ...
   squatters have installed plumbing and electricity. Photograph:
   Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images)

   What the squatting dispute boils down to is a split between those who
   consider private property to be sacred, and those who would prioritise
   the right to shelter. Few people would happily forfeit a second home to
   squatters, but nor does it feel morally justifiable for a nation to
   have an estimated 930,000 empty homes while people sleep on the
   streets.

   "We're facing one of the worst housing crises we've ever faced," says
   Blake. "They're cutting housing benefits, cutting provision to homeless
   charities, there's massive youth unemployment and property prices are
   unaffordable." Those conditions are not likely to change any time soon.
   Nor do continual promises of new, affordable homes look likely to bear
   fruit in the near future.

   Grow Heathrow is safe for the time being, since section 144 only
   applies to residential properties, but they are in no doubt the law
   will be extended to include commercial properties, including their
   community. Like all long-term squatters, they are now wondering how
   long they have got before they are thrown out and reclassified as
   criminals. Shapps' proclamation that squatters' lives were
   "characterised by gloom and anguish" now looks more like a
   self-fulfilling prophesy.

   "People are really scared at the moment," says Reuben Taylor. "There's
   a lot of fear and anxiety. Some people will end up on the streets, some
   will end up on housing benefits, some will find other places to stay,
   and some might go to jail. It's a big unknown."


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