After a disastrous year for housing rights, Hannah Wilcox from Squatters Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH) finds some reasons to be quietly optimistic. Part of our series of short contributions from writers and activists looking to the year ahead.
2012 was, hands down, the worst year for UK squatters in a very long time. After a right-wing media campaign (which can be summed up succinctly as lies, lies, and more damned lies), and an utterly bankrupt parliamentary process, we were left with Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – criminalising squatting in residential properties.
Unsurprisingly it was also an almost unmitigated disaster for housing rights and homelessness rates in general. The housing crisis marched on relatively unabated: with the official homelessness rate rising by 14% in the last year, social housing waiting lists reaching a cumulative total of five million people, and average private rental cost spiralling ever upward for London and the South-East.Little wonder then, especially when one considers the nearly one million empty properties in the UK, that 40% of single homeless have relied on squatting as an alternative to street sleeping.
In the midst of housing crisis the government has criminalised a common response to homelessness to extend its protection of private property rights to empty spaces. The realities of this move will come into effect in 2013. Will Orwell’s boot-stamping vision hold true, or can we be cautiously optimistic?
Despite Crispin Blunt’s claim to have ‘slammed shut the door on squatters’, people will not stop squatting. One million empty properties are too evident a ‘crack’ not to be utilised by those seeking shelter and a more decent quality of life. Though the government’s notion of ‘deterrence’ in this context is absurd, it will not stop the state trying to apply its repressive arm, increasing squatters’ contact with police and the criminal justice system. Since the 1st September, when the new legislation came into force, the Squatters Legal Network has managed to find out about 27 people arrested, with 5 convicted, and14 squatted homes evicted. This is certainly only the tip of the iceberg. The MOJ itself predicts 4,200 squatters will be prosecuted under the new law each year. SQUASH fully expect the police to continue using their newly found powers as eagerly as a Mr Potter upon first entering Hogwarts. We expect2013 to bring more arrests, doorstep evictions, threats and intimidation of people squatting. Sadly, we will probably also see more people sent to prison, like the 21 year old apprentice bricklayer Alex Haigh given 12 weeks custodial for housing himself in an empty flat.
But there is also reason for some quiet optimism. Eviction resistance has been a very interesting feature of the response to criminalisation.
After seeing off bailiffs, two van-loads of police (plus their angle grinder), a dog team and a helicopter last week, the eviction resistance at a squatted garden centre in Camden certainly sets the bar high for future battles with the alliance between state and property owners.
The new law asserts the right of greedy landlords to keep homes empty in the middle of a housing crisis, but how far this becomes a reality on the street will depend on how much it is resisted.The normalisation of criminalisation needs to be destabilised. Along these lines, SQUASH is launching a Repeal Section 144 campaign. Ultimately, however, 2013’s prospects for squatters rests on the ability of housing activists in general to join forces: private tenant with council tenant with squatter ,to see each others’ precarity and recognise the potentials of our shared action. SQUASH are quietly hopeful that 2013 will be better, but are very much aware that this will only be the case if we continue to locate squatting as an important part of a broader housing movement, fighting a larger housing crisis, and questioning both the expansion of marketised private property rights, and their societal distribution.