UK: Squatting as a solution to the housing crisis

The occupation of the former police station on Lower Clapton Road by Hackney residents who describe themselves as “not political” but homeless provides the owners – namely Free School Trust the Olive School – with the opportunity to prove their claimed commitment to “community service and charitable giving”, as reported on their website.

The Olive School must act humanely and negotiate with the occupiers to find a mutually beneficial deal that allows the occupiers to remain in the building until refurbishment commences.

The Free School system is transforming the way education works in the UK, taking responsibility away from state-organisations such as the Department of Education and putting it in the hands of trusts of people who are allowed to make unprecedented decisions on the curriculum and management of their schools. As “no timeline has yet been fixed for its move to the police station”, the Olive School’s board of trustees must intervene in the ominous threatened “appropriate action” of the Department of Education and insist that they themselves can negotiate and strike a compromise with the occupiers rather than mercilessly and violently evicting them out on to the streets. Squatters are not a problem, they are the symptom of the chronic lack of affordable housing in the UK currently. They are human beings struggling to survive and improve their lives in the face of insurmountable intolerance and criticism from the media, the public and the impotent interventions of supposed “welfare” institutions that have no resources to help them thanks to Government cut-backs.

Squatting, or more neutrally “self-housing”, is a solution allowing owners and occupiers to work together to maintain and protect buildings whilst providing urgently needed shelter in these times of dangerous “hidden homes“. Where will these people go if evicted? Hostels are flooded with drugs and toxically over-crowded, the waiting list for housing from councils is over two years, and there is no temporary alternative besides a cardboard box on the street.

This is the latest installment of the ruling Government’s consistent attacks on anyone who would attempt to solve their own problems of housing. In 2011, the Government criminalised squatting in residential properties, despite the thousands of empty homes across the UK and their purported commitment to the ideals of letting people take control of their own communities without government intervention. Council housing is being sold off to private landlords and the number of rough sleepers is soaring, yet those who would seek only to house themselves continued to be demonised as a source of misery and inconvenience for the rich.

Making deals with those who occupy buildings without express license is not unprecedented, and have historically been a common solution to immediate housing issues. In the 1950s, the Government was compelled to make deals with the thousands of “Vigilantes” who occupied military bases across the UK in the aftermath of the post-World War 2 housing crisis. Again in the 60s, even Conservative politicians and other boroughs across London took the bold and progressive move of signing agreements with the Family Squatting Movement, which commentators since have acknowledged was the start of the housing co-op movement in the UK. Even recently, the owners of the Pizza Express on the Kentish Town Road made an agreement with the occupiers, allowing them to host community events and house themselves through the winter.

Also, it is a common practice amongst property owners to install ‘property guardians’ into buildings in order to prevent them being occupied by unlicensed self-housers. Instead of evicting one set to install another, the owners should work with the current residents.

The Government, the public, indeed the whole UK must cease in its’ inhumane analysis of those who self-house and self-help themselves in this current economic climate. In the upcoming years, thousands more people face eviction from their homes, and when they try to house themselves, they will be criminalised and persecuted by people who naively believe it can never happen to them.

Common myths about making agreements with self-housers include that they will damage the property, yet if the grade-II listed police station is to be refurbished anyway, why should this be a concern? Moreover, due to their living situation self-housers often show a deep house pride, as well as an uncanny ability at DIY to improve the conditions of derelict and abandoned buildings in order to make them livable. I would propose to the Department of Education, the Borough of Hackney and the Olive School that instead they humanize this issue, approach the occupiers and find out what they can do together, in a genuine spirit of “Big Society”.

If free schools are to be really free and find a meaningful place in the community, they must address not only issues with education, but with the ills of residents in the local area. If the Government is to be truly representative of the nation, then they must also represent the rights of the poor and dispossessed, not only the wealthy and privileged. Work together with these residents and find a compromise together, rather than evicting them into an uncertain and difficult future. Evictions do not solve homelessness, they only further endanger lives and dehumanize the most vulnerable in society. The time has come for us to look to the history of self-housing with pride and respect and act accordingly to help the citizens of this country who would only try to help themselves out of a desperate situation.

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