Photographer : droob
‘Squatting’—it’s one of those words that's not used at the dinner table very often and when it is silence falls as minds conjure images of smashed windows and aggressive junkies surrounded by rubbish heaps. Most of the people I know who squat are students, or young people, who can't afford to rent. Most of the squats I have been to are just regular houses, with veggie patches and regular nights to take the bins out. The negative stigma surrounding squatting needs to change because it could be the solution to the current housing crisis.
Rental prices in share houses are still increasing; for example, in Melbourne, it's no longer normal to pay $60 or $70 a week, while paying over $120 a week is not uncommon. This amount plus bond, bills and the cost of food each week, leaves the average student or young person with a near impossible cost of living.
In order for people to be able to find a home to rent and for landlords to be receiving a reasonable rate of return on their investment, the vacancy rate needs to be around three per cent. Last year in Sydney the inner-city vacancy rate was at 0.9 per cent, in Melbourne it was at just 0.6 per cent.W ith figures this low, it's no wonder people are struggling to find a vacant rental house to live in.
Australian cities also have the most overvalued houses in the western world. So buying a property is rarely an option for young people. Yet 830,000 houses remain empty—these are are properties that are not a part of the normal rental market. Imagine the relief if even half of these houses were available for people to live in. This is where squatting comes into play.
Squatting is the act of occupying an abandoned or unoccupied building or space that the squatter does not own or rent. The group Self Help Housing, authors of The Squatters Handbook,
explain that the reason for squatting stems from the belief that everyone has a right to a home. They advocate for a change in the housing system so it is based on people instead of property and profit, and believe the current structures create homelessness and high rent.
According to,The Squatters Handbook,
it is illegal in Australia to squat but squatters can only be evicted by the owner of the property. If the owner does instruct the squatters to leave or face eviction they can then be charged with trespassing and criminal damage.
The 'Iceland' squat in Balmain, Sydney, remained open for five years and housed more than 20 people. It's occupiers were evicted last year and the building was demolished for re-development. Its existence was supported by the community and the building was maintained by the occupants. After Iceland's closure the Mayor of Waverley, Ingrid Strewe, told the media she supported squatting. 'We [the Council] are certainly not vehemently opposed to it. If a property is empty, someone should be living in it,' she said.
Melbourne's Student Housing Action Collective (SHAC) occupied four houses last year owned by Melbourne University in an attempt to provide affordable student run accommodation for students. They lived in the buildings for eight months before being evicted. The premises are empty again.
Both SHAC and Iceland had the support of the local community. Both squats were positively maintained by the occupants. No arrests or charges were made against any of the individuals living in these buildings.
It’s clear from these examples that the clichéd images of derelict squats needs to be challenged, and more importantly, that squatting offers a genuine solution to the housing crisis. While such a large number of houses are empty, and such a large number of people are looking for homes, the real crime is not changing the housing system to enable squatting to be a legal and viable alternative.
How do I know this?
Creagh, Sunanda, 2008. 'Squatters out as bulldozers start engines.' The Sydney Morning Herald
, 5 May. http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/squatters-out-as-bulldozers-start-engines/2008/05/04/1209839456289.html
Mullen, Joanne, 2008. 'Rental crisis in Australian cities.' Homes Worldwide
, 15 July. http://www.homesworldwide.co.uk/global/australia/news/
PILCH, 2009. 'The Homeless Law and Advocacy Resource Manual.' Chapter 1. http://www.pilch.org.au/Assets/Files/Chapter1_Introduction.pdf
Tomazin, Farrah, 2008. 'Breakfast clubs feed homeles at school, says Pike.' The Age
, 15 October. http://www.theage.com.au/national/breakfast-clubs-feed-homeless-at-school-says-pike-20081014-50nb.html
S.H.A.C (Student Housing Action Collective), 2008. http://shacmelbourne.blogspot.com/
Squatter's Handbook. http://squatspace.com/handbook/index.php
Wotherspoon, Sarah, 2008. 'Students barricade vacant uni buliding calling for low-cost housing.' The Herald Sun
, 20 August. http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,24211861-2862,00.html
Xinc Finance, 2005. “Australian House Prices 'World's Highest''. 8 December. http://www.xincfinance.net.au/?p=30