In Defence of Squatting: If It's Unused, Is It Yours?

Image credit: The Guardian

Oh dear. I suspect I am going to reawaken the age-old "is environmentalism socialist" debate with this post. Because there's nothing like discussing property rights to get people to back into their respective political corners. But try as I might, I can't avoid the fact that everywhere there is perfectly good produce, clothing, and energy going to waste. And everywhere there are dumpster divers, fruit gleaners and even moneyless men willing to live off of other people's discarded waste. This even goes for houses. So is squatting the ultimate in eco-living? Now lest I get accused of being a crazy lefty liberal (again!), I should say that I am by no means 100% pro-squatting. I understand that it is a complex social issue, and I understand that there are many problem squatters around that have caused havoc for property owners. I also understand that for those who have bought a home, or even own rental properties, the idea that others can simply take what they fancy is an anathema, even if it is unused and unloved.

But I can't ignore the fact that there are also many perfectly good homes and offices being left empty—some of which belong to local or national government in the form of public houses. And, in the UK at least, there are also absentee landlords letting their properties rot in the hope they will eventually be given planning permission to rip it down and replace it with something more lucrative—never mind the impact that this neglect has on the surrounding community in the meantime.

Many on both sides will no doubt believe the issue is cut and dry. Hardcore advocates of property rights above all else will no doubt argue that all squatting is theft. Meanwhile the radical left will tell you that all property is theft anyway, so squatters are simply redressing the balance.

But for those of us occupying the middle ground, it's hard not to see how activists taking over neglected, abandoned and often deliberately trashed buildings, and putting their sweat equity in to restore them, can have a positive impact—not just for the activists themselves—but for the communities around them too. (On the other hand, I've often wondered whether some squats might be seen as agents of gentrification-ushering in the hipster crowd, the community gardens, the vintage stores and the trendy bars that inevitably follow...)

A video piece on The Guardian website visits a 30 year veteran of London's famous Bonnington Square squat, and discusses how the original homes were completely trashed by the housing authority that owned them, in an effort to prevent squatters. Cement had been poured down the toilets and water pipes, electric cables had been ripped out, anything and everything imaginable had been done to make these homes uninhabitable.

And yet a team of young activists saw potential. And 30 years later they have created some beautiful, sustainable housing.

Forget about the rights and wrongs of squatting for a minute. We can certainly learn a thing or two about reusing and recycling from these folks, whether you agree with their actions or not.

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