From Housing Crisis to Radical Urbanism: Reflections on Squatting

The following guest post is by Alex Vasudevan from Nottingham University

Over two weeks ago I posted a piece on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site which explored the coalition government’s plans to criminalize squatting subject to a brief consultation period. The main thrust of my argument was twofold:

1) That plans to criminalize squatting would simply exacerbate a growing housing crisis in the UK. Squatting should be seen as a necessary coping strategy in the face of an highly uneven and exploitative housing market.

2) That the proposed ban also betrays a more sinister logic that seeks to legislate against various struggles for social justice in our cities. The impact of a ban on the use of ‘occupation’ as a legitimate tactic of protest must therefore be carefully considered.

The piece was greeted by shrill jeremiads about the sanctity of private property. It was never my intention to romanticize squatting nor am I a ‘right-on’ academic hoping to secure some cheap activist points. I am a cultural and historical geographer who is working on a book-length project that explores the history of squatting in Berlin. The book is based on detailed archival and ethnographic research and is driven by a commitment to recovering the complex history behind various attempts to develop more just and equal spaces in our cities. To do so, also demands a fidelity to my source material and it was in such a spirit that I posted on CIF.

In the remainder of this post, I would like to respond in two ways to some of the more negative comments which I received. First, I would like to briefly explore the relationship between the law and squatting. Second, I would like to reflect on the nature of the current housing crisis in the UK and how squatting might prompt us to think differently about urban living. In a follow-up post, I will examine the complex historical geography of squatting in the UK and elsewhere and critically interrogate the relevance of squatting and other occupation-based practices within wider ‘right to the city’ struggles. For the sake of clarity, I have organized the rest of the post as follows:

1) The law and squatting

It is not surprising that the proposed new law has been deliberately constructed to defend the interests of “hard-working homeowners” against squatters. And yet, as Richard George rightly points out in an excellent piece in New Left Project, existing legal provisions already do a good job of protecting home-owners. George is also right to flag up the significance of Section 6 of the 1977 Criminal Law Act which protects occupants of a property from violent forcible entry by non-residents including owners. That a new law would give non-resident owners the same rights as displaced residential occupiers will only make matters worse. As George writes, “instead of bringing both parties before a judge, which gives tenants a chance to prove they’ve the right to be there, often-complex housing issues would be dealt with on the doorstep, further inflaming an already heated situation.”

It is hard, in this context, not to view the planned legislation as ideologically-driven and, as such, dependent on shoring up a commitment to the untouchable rightfulness of private property. I have more to say about this in a moment but I think it is important to insist on the sufficiency of existing legislation. What concerns me here is the potential use of the law as a ‘tool’ or ‘weapon’ that could be used to defend the parlous state of housing in the UK. This kind of legal ‘revanchism’ is a very worrying development and has, in my view, become a defining feature of the neo-liberal city with its increasingly iniquitous set of geographies.

2) From Housing Crisis to Re-thinking Property

There is a pressing housing crisis in the UK. The evidential particulars of the current crisis have recently been set out to great effect by Stuart Hodkinson in a piece in Red Pepper. As Hodkinson points out, the current market has been effectively paralyzed by its own internal contradictions. Rates of repossession and homelessness are on the rise. A concomitant slump in house building completions has put further pressure on the private rental market. For example, rents have already risen by over 7.3% in London over the past year and average rents have topped £1000 for the first time. And all of this is to say nothing of the serious cuts to housing benefits and other frontline services and the impact that this will undoubtedly have on the existing crisis. At the same time, it would be misleading to simply reduce the current UK housing crisis to a catastrophic failure of the global finance system. Housing inequality, so Hodkinson argues, has always been a systemic feature of capitalism and the incessant ‘creative destruction’ of our cities has, in turn, been central to the expansion of capitalist accumulation. In Hodkinson’s own words, “[capitalism] continually condemns significant numbers of people to housing misery, and periodically blows up into a wider crisis.”

My own ongoing research in Berlin has, in this context, shown that there is in fact a direct relationship between economic crisis, housing precarity, and intensified squatting. Similar conclusions have also been drawn with respect to the history of housing crises in London, Paris, and elsewhere. It would seem to me that the criminalization of squatting would only give further support to a failed pro-market model of housing driven by profiteering and speculation. Alternative housing solutions are therefore needed – Hodkinson talks of a “cross-tenure approach” – and the everyday practices of squatters might offer some possible ways of addressing the housing question. Squatting should perhaps be seen as a both a necessary protest against precarity and a constituent protest for alternative ways of living together in increasingly divided and unequal urban settings. It is time to challenge long-standing pieties about the virtues of private property and to think creatively about notions of collective property. This is not to suggest that squatting offers the only long-term solution to the housing crisis in the UK, but that it does offer an alternative and autonomous set of practices that may help us to rethink how we want to live in our cities and in so doing build a more radical and just urbanism.

Part 2 will look at the everyday histories and geographies of squatting in England and elsewhere and the relevance of occupation as a legitimate protest tactic.