A new law cracks down on squatting in residential properties, but with thousands of empty properties and a few crowbars, radicals are still finding free accommodation this way, Maria Evrenos reports.
At the advisory meeting for squatters they are still teaching people how to change locks and to triumph over obnoxious security alarms. Ear plugs, crowbars, pipes with long levers, and even water pistols are recommended. They also have a door with a bunch of locks for you to practise on.
On this chilly November evening there are seven people (and a dog) who have turned up for the meeting, to share experiences and expertise or to find somewhere to live. “The best way is to cycle round the area where you want to live. Look for metal boards and abandoned places,” they tell us. It sounds so idyllic I have to ask “who would simply leave a property to rot?” The answer around the room is unanimous, but not hostile. “Rich people!”
“It could be that you’ve committed multi million tax fraud and buggered off to the Bahamas,” one says, slightly tongue in cheek.
Another experienced squatter says the councils are also common misusers of buildings: “There are properties that have been empty for a decade. It’s disgusting. But many councils just don’t seem to have any money to bring them back to use.”
Toynbee Street in Tower Hamlets is a striking example. A planning permission put to the council two and a half years ago already then states: “Virtually all the units in 11-31 Toynbee Street are now derelict and the buildings are in poor conditions.” One of them became occupied by squatters who lived there in disgraceful conditions; piles of debris, no electricity or running water, boarded up windows, empty booze bottles and condoms at the door step - for about three months.
The dwelling is empty and boarded up now, but the underlying issues remain. Freddie Murray of Tower Hamlets council said the latest consultation for reinvigorating the street was turned down, “mainly for financial reasons”. The council wanted to keep the land and to invest in new social housing, but the financial ends weren’t met. Mr Murray said the properties are most likely to be demolished in 2013 and the land would instead be sold to a developer.
Realistically though, it looks as if they could be left there to rot for a lot longer. Findings from the Empty Homes charity says this is part of a broader pattern in the UK: “In the last three years falling house prices, restrictions on borrowing money and reduced government funding have caused many regeneration schemes to stall or even be abandoned.”
And with 710,000 homes currently empty in England, 72, 457 in London alone, it should not come as a surprise that squatting is surviving as an alternative housing solution for some.
Among the encouragement and advice how to legally sneak into a new home, offered at London Action Resource Centre (LARC) in Whitechapel, a senior squatter warns: “But be aware, you can’t squat in a residential building. The law has changed.”
The Government has become increasingly concerned about the distress and misery that squatters can cause. A report produced by the Ministry of Justice last year said: “Law-abiding property owners or occupiers who work hard for a living can spend thousands of pounds evicting squatters from their properties, repairing damage and clearing up the debris they have left behind.”
In response, squatting in residential properties was changed from a civil to a criminal offence in September this year. But so far only one squatter has been sentenced to jail under the new offence.
One guy who squats in an old retirement home, together with 12o others, expresses his regret over the new law: “It’s bad because residential properties were of a much better standard. They were built to be homes. Now it’s mainly office spaces or warehouses which aren’t as good to live in.”
Homeless charity Crisis was one of the organisations who opposed the new law because they feared it would lead to more people sleeping on the streets.
And sadly, their annual report published this month revealed worrying figures: “By June 2012, quarterly statutory homelessness acceptances in England had increased 34% on their end 2009 minimum.”
The report also concludes that people under 25 are increasingly vulnerable due to the combined impact of rising unemployment, benefit cuts and the weakening of the housing safety net.
Sara, 20, a student from California tells me: “It’s much easier to pay rent than to squat, if you have the money for it, because of the lack of stability. We’ve been half a step away from homelessness quite a few times.”
I visit her in her fourth squat, which has a price board from a fish and chips shop in the living room- a bizarre combination of a hunting trophy and a symbol of adversity overcome. “At one point we lived in this awful property in Aldgate. It had been empty for ten years and parts didn’t have power. There were moss and mould and one room was totally occupied by pigeons. And that’s dangerous too because pigeon poo is toxic.”
She had never squatted before she came to London. “I think in the states, at least in some parts, if you trespass on somebody’s property they can shoot you.”
Some people are worried this is the first step in a power-surge from the Government to criminalize all squatting. Minister Crispin Blunt has left the door open saying: “We will keep the situation under review in relation to non-residential property and are not ruling out further action in the future if it is needed”.