Sunday, July 03, 2011

Between a squat and a hard place

Guest post from Mira Vogel.

A home is a basic right and yet there are simply not enough homes. When there aren't enough homes the rental market becomes inundated and the poor are excluded. Private landlords tend to perceive welfare money as not as reliable as private tenants' - mainly because there isn't enough of it to go round the bills, food, &tc.

Max Dunbar on the housing shortage.
"We need around 240,000 new homes per year to meet demand and are building about half that. Whether we allocate by need or virtue, millions of people are losing out. It is a futile game of musical chairs. And it has become a G-spot issue for people who argue over the few remaining seats without stopping to think who’s playing the music."

Perhaps it's because I walk through both Whitechapel (a disadvantaged area where I don't notice any unoccupied buildings) and the City of London (one of the world's wealthiest, where I notice several) most days, but in this country there are few more squanderous things than a building unoccupied.

For those without a home one alternative has been to form a group and take possession of an abandoned or empty building (aka squatting). There are an estimated 10,000 squatters in the UK. Since the 1994 Criminal Justice Law and Order Act, providing the building has been empty for one year, squatting has been a civil, not criminal, offence. Unless the person trying to gain entry is the residential occupier, squatters have been protected by:
"...section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, which makes it an offence to use violence or threats of violence to gain access to premises when there is someone on the premises who is opposed to such entry."

However, as well as withdrawing support for squatters as part of the great legal aid cuts, as of early 2012 the Coalition Government has announced plans to make squatting a matter for the English and Welsh criminal courts (it's already a criminal offence in Scotland). The responses has been mixed. A poll at The Student Room shows nearly 80% in favour of squatting incurring either a custodial sentence or a fine. There have some queries about resourcing from a judgement enforcement company (whose vested interests presumably lie in being able to carry on getting paid to do evictions which under the Clarke plans would be carried out by the police).

The most organised response has been from a coalition of charities and squatters groups, SQUASH (Squatters Action for Secure Homes). SQUASH produced a parliamentary briefing on the dangers of criminalising the vulnerable, and a government consultation in now imminent. Their next public meeting is on July 13th in The House of Commons.

Most people will sympathise with home owners like the Hamilton-Browns who, apart from leaving their Archway property unsecured (and it is hard to secure a building which is being renovated), did everything by the book and yet found themselves unable to occupy the house they had bought for their young family. Squatters who had choices forced them into rented accommodation, would not leave, did not respect the space, and their example was a gift to The Mail, The Telegraph and The Sun - no matter that many squatters improve the abandoned and dilapidated buildings they inhabit.

Where I part company with the Hamilton-Browns is their call (if indeed they did call) for squatting to be made a criminal offence. We do not want to put the growing numbers of involuntary squatters (39% of single homeless people have squatted at some point) in prison, or fine them. We don't want to put anybody in prison if we can possibly help it - it costs a packet.

I can't see what is wrong with an amendment to the current law to incorporate buildings which are being used but are unsecured for good reason.

As veteran squatter Anna Oderich comments, “It's very dangerous just to point fingers. There's all kinds of squatters. There are freeloaders – I know all about this; at one point I had someone living on my bathroom floor for two months – but there's freeloaders everywhere. There's no reason to destroy it all for the sake of a few people.”

Katharine Sacks-Jones of Crisis:
"What we really want to make sure ministers are aware of is that there's a large proportion of squatters who are very vulnerable people who are squatting because they simply don't have another choice. This law would be criminalising very, very vulnerable people, and I don't think anyone wants to see that. It's counter-productive. It's not going to address the underlying problems that these people face: that there's a lack of housing."

More on this:

5 comments:

  1. Thanks and sorry B21 I must have given you the wrong link for SQUASH at the bottom - it's http://www.squashcampaign.org/

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  2. No you didn't. Blogger corrupted a few of the links and I didn't notice that one when looking through the html.

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  3. See too Empty Homes, a charity which helps people make homes from abandoned properties.

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  4. @emptyhomes says 2186 empty homes in Redbridge which happens 2 b c. 2.18%. Via Flesh is Grass.

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  5. Big problem in Ilford, people are breaking into houses, which is illegal. Then squatting!!

    While there they steal gas and elctric from the mains and apply for housing benefit. Never pay rent or bills and take the rent until someone kicks them out!

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