What do the Clash, Boy George, and billionaire Richard Branson have in common?
They all experienced the uniquely British rite of passage: squatting.
Anthony Faiola of The Washington Post reports that squatter numbers are surging in Britain.
Did the Occupy Movement bolster participation in this older, yet demographically shifting anti-capitalist practice? Is London simply scarce on jobs and brimming with unaffordable housing options?
According to Faiola, both.
This makes implementing the new law criminalizing squatting in residential areas even more controversial. For the first time since the 1970s squatters are being forced out without courts orders, some receiving penalties of up to $8,000 and six months in jail.
“Police in riot gear forced through a line of protesters in the beach town of Brighton,” Faiola reports, “entering an occupied home only to find three young squatters had superglued themselves to the attic rafters in an attempt to prevent arrest.”
Other squatters do not identify with the political history or ideals of the subculture, but simply find themselves without enough money for a flat.
Folks like Richard Broadbury, a fashion photographer whose economic decline began in 2008, do not see another way to live in one of the world’s most expensive cities.
“It’s not my first choice, no,” said Broadbury, who lives in an empty East London flat with nine other squatters. “I’m doing it because I have no other option.”
“Whichever way you look at it, homelessness is increasing in Britain, primarily because of the lack of affordable homes, the down economy and cuts to benefits,” said Kate Webb, policy officer at the homeless advocacy group Shelter. “What’s really striking is the number of people who are now homeless because their tenancies ended and they can’t afford a new place to stay.”
Conservative legislator Mike Weatherley spearheaded the squatter criminalization law. It is no surprise he has a different perspective about the squatter demographic. Weatherley says antisocial political beliefs motivate most squatters, arguing the government offers enough government services to help those in real need.
The anti-squatters law went into effect on September 1st. Britain’s squatter population, experts say, is expanding because more people are slipping between the cracks of an eroding social safety net. Housing services were slashed by the Conservative-led government in the middle of a recession, and the average rent for a London apartment tops $6,000 a month.
Here’s hoping the law will lead to intelligent discussions about the bigger picture. Why is housing outrageously expensive in London? How has a long tradition of squatting shaped British cultural identity? How will fining squatters exacerbate housing woes?
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