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To give a squat

By - 03.02.2015

Squatters rights and housing shortage suggestions…

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to housing, yet roughly 1 billion people have to break the law on a daily basis in order to claim this basic right. The favelas, slums, shanty towns and situation of homeless people around the world all tell the tale of society’s failure in effectively utilizing its resources and public space in order to care for its citizens.

Housing is one of the biggest problems of today’s urbanized world. This modest depiction sets out to paint a broad stroked picture of a common response to the problem — squatting.

At the ripe age of 7 I found myself contemplating how to best fortify an abandoned root-cellar. Our company of brave companions had stumbled upon it by chance as we were playing in the forest. When we proclaimed it as our fortress I had yet to grasp the finer points of ownership and property, but I remember how it left me feeling like a conqueror.

Some 20 years later I had made a new friend with whom I was biking through Europe. During nights and rainy days we would share stories and drinks in our tent. One night he told me about his years as a squatter in London. Although he spoke with conviction about the political elements of squatting life, the injustice of capitalist housing markets and the autonomist ideals of his fellow squatters, it reminded me very much of my summer as lord of the root-cellar.

For the majority, squatting is not so much a choice as a survival strategy.

The same expression of rebellious pride came over his face as he told me about the eternal struggle against authorities and landlords. He described how, one by one, heating, electricity, gas and water had been turned off and how in the end he was the last one remaining. Eventually it got boring so he packed his bags and left.

So why did he squat? Clearly it was convenient not having to pay rent. There was also an obvious political angle to his actions. Although the practical and political points struck a chord with my friend, it seemed to have been the romantic aspects of squatting that drove it home.

This led me to suspect that, as an indicator of social injustice, a level headed man-boy of middle class origin squatting in central London is as irrelevant as 7-year-olds occupying root-cellars. Regardless, it serves to show some of the angles as to why people choose to squat. For the majority, however, it is not so much a choice as a survival strategy.

Part 1. The diverse squatting world

A squatter is someone who occupies land and/or buildings that he or she does not own, rent or otherwise have lawful permission to use. It’s estimated that one out of seven people fall under the broad definition above. In other words, more than one billion people. Although the vast majority of squatters reside in the shanty towns, favelas and slums, many might think of rebellious youth when hearing the terms squatters.

The two can actually be regarded as akin — in terms of being results of failed policies and markets — but they take on very different forms around the world. On one end of the scale, there are people seeking shelter and a place to call home, be it the homeless or other marginalized groups.

As the amount of worldwide squatters indicates, it is not a simple problem with a single and simple solution.

On the other end, there is a mixture of anarchists, autonomists, artists and social activists who seek to voice their opinions, pursue an artistic expression or separate themselves from a society they might not feel part of. Then there are the adventurous individuals, generally curious about squatting.

The dividing lines between different categories of squatters seem elusive, as does any attempt at an exhaustive list of sub-categories. The culture of squatting is almost as diverse as the multitude of cultures in which it is exists, not only due to socio-economic contexts but also the legal framework that regulates the respective rights of tenants and landlords/owners.

As the amount of worldwide squatters indicates, it is not a simple problem with a single and simple solution, but a highly contextual sensitive phenomena where the same basic occurrence might be viewed as a malady by some and a healthy expression of social awareness by others.

While exploring all angles of squatting is beyond the scope of this modest excursion, an attempt has been made to capture the benefits of squatting by circling its progressive movement — primarily concentrated to major cities in the western world. By progressive I mean the non-violent sort, those that strive to exist within the boundaries of the law and contribute to society by finding alternative uses of buildings that would otherwise be abandoned.

The representatives of the progressive squatting movement might not be the most vulnerable or in-need, but the community does seem to contain a higher concentration of outspoken and constructive ideas. I have rummaged through some writings, divulged the mini-documentaries offered by the almighty internet and asked some friends and acquaintances about their experiences of squatting in order to understand the ins and outs of life as a squatter.

Part 2. Progressive squatting movements  

Most sources that I have reviewed trace the modern squatting movement back to the 1960s. In many places the movement is not restricted to only housing, but has also spawned social centers and other forms of communal utilization of abandoned spaces. Such examples can be found in England, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands among other places.

But even when reviewing the seemingly similar squatting done in major cities in the Western world, it would be misinformed to speak about it as one coherent movement. It is not so much a movement as parallel reactions to similar problems, where each country has its own reasons and conditions for squatting.

In some countries, housing-legislation allows for squatting to be done in a legal manner under certain circumstances.

The recent economic crisis has brought squatting back into public debate, as people are made to leave their home due to foreclosures at the same time as property prices continuing to rise in many major cities.

In the book “Squatting Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles,” Margit Mayer describes how the occupy-movement that followed in the wake of the economic crisis in the U.S. and Europe has taken hold of and revived squatting ideals, bridging the occupy-movement with existing squatting communities. She exemplifies this by pointing to the fact that in the U.S. the occupy-movement has helped ordinary people move into abandoned and foreclosed properties. In Spain similar actions are being taken by the 15M-movement.

In some countries, housing-legislation allows for squatting to be done in a legal manner under certain circumstances. This was the case with the luxury squatter in Florida that made the news in many countries around the world. By changing the locks and paying the bills, he called upon so called “adverse possession” and claimed a mansion due to a loophole in the federal legislation.

In England, the government even offers its citizens fairly comprehensive information on how to squat within the boundaries of the law. Although legislation was passed in 2012 that decreased squatters-rights, the English legislation is arguably still the most liberal and there are many examples of how squatting has been used to benefit the public by setting up social centers acting as libraries, swap shops, cafes and concert halls. The history of legal protection for squatters in England is probably why it has spawned so many examples of progressive solutions.

So what are the main arguments for squatting that the progressive movement are based upon?

Part 3. The basic arguments for squatting

Although the motivations and reasons for squatting are many, the ideological ideas of the progressive movement seem to boil down to two main arguments — one of basic rights and one of misused public or private property.

While the egalitarian idea that housing is a basic human right is fairly universal, arguments related to inefficient use of property need to take the local context into consideration when looking to find alternative ways of utilizing society’s resources and social space. The relationship between unused/abandoned buildings and the shortage of housing is important in this line of argumentation.

On average, nearly 60 percent of a country’s population live in urban areas. These are the areas where housing shortages are most pressing. A 2014 study by McKinsey Global Institute estimates that 330 million urban households around the world live in substandard housing or are financially stretched by housing costs. At the same time, many of the world’s major cities host a large number of abandoned/unused buildings. In the UK alone some 870, 000 homes stand empty, not including commercial buildings.

Therein lies the fundamental paradox upon which the progressive squatting movement makes its case — but a strong argument won’t necessarily hold up in court.

Part 4. Squatting and the Law

Protection for squatters is not uniform around the globe. In cases where such protection exists it is often regulated by so called tenant-rights, outlining the rights of people who live in, but do not own, a property.

By upholding certain standards of living and staying for an extended period of time, squatters can often be granted tenant-rights that prohibit them from being evicted without notice by the landlord and/or a court order. Some countries, including the U.S., also have laws on adverse possession that potentially will grant the tenant/squatter ownership after a number of years if he or she is living there without permission but continues paying property tax and does not hide the fact that he or she is living there.

As mentioned before, the English squatters-rights are arguably the most developed, coherent and liberal. Regulations on squatting in residential buildings were tightened in 2012 but still include protection for someone who squats in non-residential buildings. These squatters-rights prohibit the police from taking action as long as squatters:

  • Do not cause damage when entering the property
  • Do not cause damage while in the property
  • Abides the court when ordered to leave
  • Do not steal from the property
  • Do not use utilities without permission
  • Do not fly-tip (illegally dump waste)
  • Obey noise abatement notices

Part 5. Squatting in Kosovo

The conditions for the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities in Kosovo are harsh and many are forced to live in substandard housing. Property law is a sensitive issue however.

In the cadastral chaos that emerged after the liberation of Kosovo in 1999, those empowered by the situation saw opportunity to profit by claiming property that did not belong to them. The grabbing of property struck at all ethnic groups in Kosovo, although Kosovo’s Serb, Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian owners/tenants were hit the hardest.

Providing tenant-rights to people living in derelict buildings where ownership might also be unclear would potentially protect them from harassment by self-proclaimed owners. It would also grant a sense of permanency necessary for improving their lives.

The backlog of ownership claims/cases continue to burden the courts today, leaving much construction and property development in hiatus. In Prishtina the price-to-income differences for housing are high, stopping young people from getting a place of their own and pursuing their own objectives. In short, housing is a serious problem both for individual citizens and the further development of society.

While researching through legal-databases, I have not been able to find any relevant legislation resembling tenant-rights for potential squatters in Kosovo, nor am I aware of any actual law-abiding constructive squatting being done. But let’s speculate freely on some reasons for why both such legislation and movements would be beneficial in a number of ways.

Firstly, it could bring the most exposed groups of people under the umbrella of basic legal protection. Providing tenant-rights to people living in derelict buildings where ownership might also be unclear would potentially protect them from harassment by self-proclaimed owners. It would also grant a sense of permanency necessary for improving their lives.

Secondly, Kosovo has a very young population and a buzzing scene of artists and social activists. Opening up the possibility to make use of abandoned buildings in a legal manner for housing and social centers would possibly channel creativity and also advance the image of Kosovo as a progressive young state with a forward-thinking youth movement.

This short overview should not be viewed as an attempt at an exhaustive solution to the housing problem nor is it a complete analysis of squatting. But lest we shall all fit in the ENK skyscraper, it might be something for all sharp legal minds out there to think about.

Feature image: Creative Commons License.