Squatting: the urban space as a common good

London_squatters_outside_the_Mayfair“Housing is a need, not a privilege”, “Housing for people, not for profit”. Banners with slogans like these hang from windows in any number of European cities. Across Europe, increasing social inequality is making some urban spaces inaccessible to those who used to inhabit them. Gentrification, corporatization and so-called “urban regeneration” projects are leading to the demolition of social and accessible housing, replaced by unaffordable apartments. This leads to the increased eviction and displacement of tenants from their homes and their relocation to the suburbs and peripheries.

Houses, once owned by councils or their occupants, have become investment opportunities for large corporations. With up to 200,000 living spaces intentionally kept vacant in the UK, houses are being stripped of their social value and becoming objects to secure the elites’ wealth. Workers in precarious positions, families, low wage households and students are being displaced or made homeless, while surrounded by vacant properties.

Yet, in our society the right to own property, regardless of its uses, is considered higher than the need for housing. The apparent “housing crisis” is not, in many cases, due to an actual lack of housing, but is in fact generated by our neo-liberal attitudes towards private property: an attitude that allows billionaires and corporations to use urban spaces as assets rather than as common goods and homes.

Given this shortage of affordable housing and a concomitant abundance of vacant properties, many find squatting to be a viable alternative to owning or renting, and take direct action to solve their housing needs. Squatting therefore serves both a material and symbolic function: an alternative housing strategy as well as a practice of resistance against the structural inequalities that give rise to the erosion of housing rights and the corporatization of urban living.

In many cases, squatters bring life to disused and sometimes derelict buildings by renovating them and turning them into housing as well as into common spaces of cultural exchange and political reflection. This includes creating collective platforms for free access to basic needs and social activities otherwise available for profit: not only housing, but also kitchens where food is collectively prepared and distributed, informal services providing legal advice and community support, workshops for sharing knowledge and skills, as well as recreational cultural activities (from free concerts to cinemas). Squatters can create grassroots communities that highlight a shared right to use the city outside a profit motive.

The Netherlands used to be an example of good practice in their policy towards squatting. In line with the Dutch model of “regulated tolerance”, squatting was allowed under certain conditions. It was considered an important contribution to the urban landscape, and its role in the struggle for social housing has long been acknowledged. As housing shortages and a great deal of empty properties affected Dutch cities, squatting was considered a viable solution to a problem that the government did not want to resolve.

Squatters had the right to use a vacant property as a “home” if it was empty and unused for longer than a year. When squatters moved into a vacant property with a table, a mattress and a chair, and showed they were using the space as a “home”, their housing rights prevailed over property rights. Squatters had to provide evidence that the property had indeed been vacant for longer than a year. To evict squatters, property owners had to initiate a civil proceeding and bring evidence of concrete plans to use the property otherwise.

Tolerance of squatting was a pragmatic tool that discouraged landlords from leaving their properties unused for speculative reasons, and that allowed people who would otherwise be homeless to use them. It was a delicate balance, but it worked.

Squatting has now, however, been criminalized, both in the Netherlands (2010) and in England and Wales (2012). Starting in the early 2000s, political campaigns attempted to depoliticize squatting by portraying it as a form of theft. This criminalization happened during a time of austerity and privatization in the housing market – and now the costs of renting are increasing, the availability of social housing is diminishing, while the amount of buildings left in disuse is constantly on the rise.

Rather than being viewed as a reflection on social and political inequalities, squatting itself became the “problem” that needed to be solved. This marked an important shift. The media and politicians portrayed squatting as an immoral action, a violation of private property rights, and squatters were framed as criminals who posed a threat to public order. Claims that squatters stole people’s homes dominated the public discussion, while the politics of squatting are quite the opposite. Indeed, instead of “taking people’s homes”, squatters typically target unused properties owned by real estate speculators. They often conduct detailed research about the history of the building, future plans and the background of the owners, unmasking practices of real estate speculation (in the Netherlands there is even a “Speculation Research Group” that supports squatters in this work: http://www.speculanten.nl/).

Squatting is best viewed as a grassroots redistribution of unused spaces rather than as “theft”; using homes for people rather than for profit. Yet stigmatization of squatters and the de-politicization of the practice legitimized state and police intervention against squatters and the immediate eviction of occupied spaces.

Populist rhetoric both in the Netherlands and in England and Wales portrayed squatters as foreigners who wanted to live for free at the expense of hard working citizens, and mobilized feelings of fear and insecurity regarding possible “home invasions”. Such political campaigns were used to stoke resentment against squatters, who were reconstructed as the foreign other, to be feared and rejected in order to re-establish social norms. Squatters were accused of damaging the image of the city and of threatening public and moral order. So the criminalization shifted the public perception of private property and the correct uses of urban spaces; morality was re-framed to better coincide with the neo-liberal, profit-drive ends of the speculators. In this context, the political priority became not only the protection of private property but also the creation of new governmental tools for achieving a reorganization of urban life, disciplining and ordering allegedly “disorderly” populations.

The criminalization of squatting shifted the focus away from the government’s failure to implement policies to provide affordable housing, and towards the supposedly immoral behaviour of squatters. In this context, corporate powers’ interests remain untouched, protected both by legislation and by the even stronger force of public opinion, at the expense of people’s needs.

Deanna Dadusc is Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton