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Lifehacker: Squatting

Johann Johannson delves into a different kind of share-housing

There is a strong tradition of squatting in Sydney, from the post-war squats in the ‘40s supported by the Returned Services League and the Communist Party of Australia, to the Broadway community spaces squatted first in the late ‘80s and again in 2002 (which later led to the community space set up in Homebush). More recently there have been a number of dwellings and other empty buildings squatted for political purposes and as community centres, as well as homes for people to live in.

In the current post-GFC economic climate, with the high cost of housing (both rent and mortgages) and the hugely over-inflated property market, the idea of squatted spaces is starting to resurface from its underground roots into the broader ‘alternative’ community.

A quick look at statistics from both the housing market and numbers of homeless, as well as struggling low income families and renters, serves as a startling reminder that the current legislative framework and efforts by various government and NGOs are failing to address the housing needs of vast swathes of the population.

The number of unoccupied residential dwellings in Sydney counted by census workers in 2006 was 122,211 with the highest number found in the inner city. That doesn’t include other empty properties such as warehouses, halls, churches and various other empty commercial properties.

In a briefing paper published by the NSW government entitled “Homelessness in NSW” the number of homeless in 2006 on census night was approximately 105,000 with 27,374 in NSW. That means there are approximately about 4.5 empty residential dwellings in Sydney alone per homeless person in all of NSW, as well as more than enough houses in Sydney for every homeless person in Australia. This includes varying degrees of homelessness as well as houselessness.

While there are a number of reasons for properties being vacant and also for people being homeless, and no one is suggesting that we should just give each person on the streets a home, it is startling to think that we live in a society where there is both an abundance of empty homes and tens of thousands who are homeless.

Australia has survived the recent economic turmoil fairly well compared to a lot of other countries in the ‘developed’ world, and has a relatively strong public healthcare system.

So how does this relate to squatting?

It’s not fair to say that squatting is a perfect solution to the housing crisis or a long term solution to the woes of the property market, but squatting does provide short term solutions to a number of issues. Obviously it will never be popular in more conservative circles but for open-minded types it helps to weigh up the potential benefits and risks as well as barriers and logistical problems.

For a start, there is a reasonably common practice in the property market known as ‘negative gearing’. This basically involves owners using property for which they are not receiving rent and keeping the properties vacant so they can write off the property as a loss and claim it as a tax deduction. This is especially true for a lot of commercial properties which, it just so happens, make ideal community spaces, social centres, and in some cases shared housing.

For an organised squatting community this provides the opportunity to establish something in the order of a ‘care-takers lease’ or licence agreement, whereby those using the empty space are guaranteed some stability and security, and can legally use the space without interfering with the owner’s finances. While not all property owners are willing to enter such agreements, there are those who are happy to have their property looked after as well as used to provide for a community.

There is also a growing trend, especially within low socio-economic status families, for parents to act as guarantors for their children both for rented properties as well as new home owners’ mortgages. This exposes families to a huge degree of risk, especially with the likely ‘bursting’ of the property bubble and the uncertain outlook for economic conditions. If, for whatever reason, children are unable to gain financial security and they’re forced to back up their guarantee, any family would be at pains – if not financially ruined – to cough up hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Most people find the relief from the burden of rent and debt outweighs the quest for a long-term home, especially with most enduring squats ending up as securely rented properties – but this is by no means the status quo.

Squatting communities that are well organised offer the potential to look after a house or property without the burden of rent, which is genuinely a great way to save money as well as a potentially a great way to meet open-minded and alternative people. There is a strong sense of community amongst most squatting networks and a lot of support for those new to the idea.