London: Squatting, Evictions, and the Coronavirus

Some days after granting a 3-month breather for mortgage payments the government caved to pressure and stated that renters who fail to pay rent will be protected from eviction during the next 3 months. This meant very little to squatters, and as explained later, still means very little to renters.

The Pie ‘n’ Mash Autonomous Cafe was evicted the morning of that same announcement, the same day that the cafe (having closed for safety reasons some days earlier) was to become London’s first Mutual Aid Centre, to complement the anarchist-instigated and autonomously-organised Mutual Aid groups that had sprung up around the city, and now the country. The council (who without a doubt had a hand in effecting the eviction of the Pie ‘n’ Mash) announced the very next day their own initiative of a centre to assist Mutual Aid groups in distribution of needed goods, co-opting the idea to suit their own agenda and save face in the eyes of the public.

Things have not gotten better for squatters by any means in the following days. Multiple evictions have taken place on buildings that have been awaiting bailiffs for weeks, seemingly a rush by owners and bailiff companies to do business in the case that the government prevents them from doing so in the future.

All the stops are being pulled out by the lawyers and the bailiffs to ensure they still have something to do during this period. As the courts are shutting down a lot of services they have suggested that new possession proceedings will not be accepted. In reality this is not the case. Telephone hearings have been set up, and this allows claimants to go through the process without providing proof of service (a squat recently received a copy of a possession order granted, despite never having been served the initial claim paperwork, thus denying them the chance to attend). Other squats have been calling the courts, to be told their cases will be going ahead.

Attempts to argue for a stay on execution of the possession orders have so far been unsuccessful, with one particularly anti-squatter judge rejecting the idea without so much as a second thought, despite the clearly outlined human rights and health and safety arguments. More challenges will be, and are being launched by members of the Advisory Service for Squatters however.

And it is not just the squatters that are at risk. With the Coronavirus Act 2020 now enacted , the relevant schedule regarding evictions simply states that those with residential tenancies should be entitled to 3 months notice rather than the already-required 2 months. A leak from a property management company to The Guardian suggests that owners are trying to push through rental evictions at a huge rate before it becomes too difficult to do, and as a result are hiring more and more bailiffs to carry out the evictions before total lockdown. The Master of the Rolls has just announced that the court service will suspend all ongoing housing possession action but this certainly does not look like it applies to cases of trespass, and it remains to be seen whether it prevents a writ that has already been issued from being enforced by private High Court Enforcement (if it has reached that stage).

In one case a group were told by a bailiff that they did not wish to carry out the eviction, but the overwhelming trend is that the bailiffs do not care, and in fact are probably quite happy to still be employed, carrying out evictions kitted out in gloves and masks. There must be a lot of out of work security who are keen to take up the role.

Despite all this squatters in the city have been coming together (in the metaphorical sense more so than physical) to ensure that squats in the same neighbourhoods are linked up to co-ordinate and make sure each crew has enough to eat, enough space, and be aware of the health conditions of the members of the crew. Health and safety precautions are communicated to each other so if there is contact between people then everyone is aware of the risks and the care taken to mitigate them. Buildings are being opened to provide more space for those who need greater isolation. While some forms of organising have obviously had to take a back seat, those skills are being put to use to help each other stay safe.

Squatters, tenants, and the street homeless alike, everyone needs protection and the ability to keep social distancing during this crisis. Creating homelessness does nothing but exacerbate the issue. The plan to house the homeless in hotels is all very well, but without addressing the issues surrounding homelessness it does not guarantee safety from infection. And while Travelodge is happy to shut doors and evict without notice many families in temporary accommodation, we know that there is no security in any measures the government opts for at this point.

Occupations and rent strikes. These are measures we can take to protect ourselves and each other. We must continue to build strong eviction resistance networks in our neighbourhoods, and push back against any attempts to further marginalise those on the fringes of society during this time.

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