Source : The Melbourne Times, May 9, 2007, pp.8–9
- The number of squatters in Melbourne may be growing, and new groups are forming to help them and fight for their rights. Brigid Enis discovers what it’s like to live without electricity or heat.
The dinner party is held in a room lit entirely by candles and filled with the scent of incense. Food is taken from a portable Esky and cooked on a camping stove. Guests sit on three op shop armchairs, and the decor consists of scattered environmental and political posters on the floor and walls. Music is limited to what the host and guests can sing and play, and conversation will doubtless touch on politics, social justice and the environment. This, according to Karen (not her real name), is life as a squatter.
Karen, 29, began squatting in January this year after the lease on her rental property expired and the owner decided to sell. Karen, a part-time PhD student and part-time union employee, has been renting in the inner suburbs of Melbourne since she was 18 years old. But after her lease expired she found she could not afford a new place in Melbourne’s very competitive rental market. “I just kept hitting brick walls when trying to find new rental properties or trying to find share houses,” Karen says. “It was totally insane. I went to rental property inspections and witnessed the rent auctions that are so infamous now and just decided that I would start squatting.”
Karen is one of a number of people who found squatting to be their only option, and evidence suggests that number is growing. The reinstatement of the Melbourne Squatters’ Union earlier this year may indicate squatting is on the rise. The group aims to support people affected by massive rent increases, low vacancy rates, a short supply of crisis housing and growing public-housing waiting lists.
The latest Office of Housing quarterly rent report released last month showed a median rent increase of 6.4 per cent, a fact that grates on Australians for Affordable Housing spokesman David Imber. “We are obviously very concerned that the housing crisis is so severe that some people feel that they have got no other option but to squat,” Mr Imber says. “People are really being forced out of legitimate rentals, but even rooming houses are becoming too expensive for some groups.”
People shut out of the rental market and public housing can find support in the re-established squatters’ union, which has a dotted history dating back to the Depression. Helping guide this new wave of squatters is the No Frills Melbourne Squatters’ Guide — a web-based tool that helps squatters find a squat — and a community radio show. Community radio station 3CR has broadcast the Squatters and Unwaged Workers’ Airwaves [SUWA] show for about 15 years. The show aims to support and promote squatters and acts as a hub for the union.
In 2001, the show distributed the [No Frills] Melbourne Squatter’s Handbook [February 2002], a predecessor to the squatters’ guide, which came out in the 1990s. The guide states that squatting is not illegal. “Legally, squatting could be a civil dispute between you and the owner. The police should not be involved unless there is the threat of violence or a breach of the peace.” The guide encourages squatters to fight challenges “because housing is a basic human right and sometimes you have to take action to assert your rights”.
Less than two months ago squatters’ rights were put to the test. For two months, a house of squatters existed peacefully in Baker Street, Richmond, just off Church Street. But one Sunday afternoon in March the house was filled with youths dressed in black playing what sounded like a death metal concert. The music was so loud the neighbours called the police. Police in seven squad cars attempted to evict the squatters, but the squatters were obviously prepared for them. They knew their rights, had a lawyer on call, managed to fend off the police and remain, but not for long. Less than a week after the party the squatters, who had managed to hook up the electricity, were evicted.
Carlton resident Finlo White had his own squatter experience after he lived for two years next door to about eight of them. Mr White said the squatters changed the locks on the house, constantly demanded money and used the backyard as a toilet. His most memorable interaction with them was when a squatter armed with a table leg full of nails knocked on his front door and demanded electricity earlier this year. Mr White, filled with Christmas cheer, had extended them a lead from his rental property a few weeks before and now the squatters wanted electricity all the time. Two months ago the house burnt down.
Mr Imber says squatters’ living conditions are often dangerous. “There are all sorts of arrangements and things that go on,” he said. “The reason why places are so often vacant is because they are derelict; they’ve got exposed wiring around and unsecured structures. “We are obviously incredibly concerned that those people are putting themselves at risk.”
Melbourne West Police Inspector Stephen Mutton said the police were also concerned about squatters’ safety, and set up the Inner City Squats Committee after a young girl died in a squat in 2004. Inspector Mutton said the purpose of the committee was to close down or secure potential squats before squatters found them. “We can get these places closed up before someone is exposed to danger,” Inspector Mutton said. “City of Melbourne engineers identify the squats and go around to see if they are unsafe and then get the authorities to fix them.” If squatters do manage to get into squats in the city the committee has a long list of referral services to help them relocate. “Kicking people out on the street creates a bigger problem, which is why we try and refer them to homeless services.”
Some squatters say squatting is a lifestyle choice and a community, rather than a problem to be solved. Four months ago Karen, and two of her mates, who were also fed up with renting, set up a squat in an inner suburb of Melbourne. They found furniture, cutlery and crockery on the street and at the back of op shops and quickly learnt to live without electricity or hot water. Some of Karen’s squatter friends don’t even have running water and rely on bucket flushing to use the toilet. Others camp in run-down properties using solar showers and camping stoves, and one even has his own garden planted in a shopping trolley in case of eviction.
Karen says not having a constant home does not bother her and the advantages of her lifestyle outweigh the disadvantages. “One of the challenges has been learning to think about security in a different way, and also learning to think about the idea of home in a different way,” Karen says. “Friendships would be the sense of home, not so much the roof over your head. “It’s not so much a materialist thing as it is about relationships and I think once you make that shift it’s fine.” She says she can’t imagine living any other way and feels that even when she gets her university qualifications she will continue to squat. “It’s something that I will get more skilled at and more comfortable doing,” she says. “There is certainly something different that shifts your mind.”
COMMENTS, CORRECTIONS, CLARIFICATIONS AND C*CKUPS
Squatters invade city buildings
November 4, 2003
SQUATTERS are invading hundreds of suburban homes and city buildings to live rent-free. The organised rent cheats have published a guerilla guide on the internet offering takeover tips and tactics, and broadcast a weekly radio program. They told the Herald Sun more than 100 long-term squatters, including some families with young children, were living undetected in homes across the city. Many more homeless itinerants were squatting short-term in vacant commercial properties, often leaving a trail of damage behind. Police, the fire brigade and the Melbourne, Port Phillip and Yarra councils have banded together to deal with the growing squatting trend.
The No Frills Melbourne Squatters Guide includes chapters on finding empty properties, breaking in and securing the squat, and connecting essential services. “Once you are inside your new home, you will firstly need to change all the locks so that you can feel secure and safe and keep out anyone you don’t want coming in,” it says. It offers advice on avoiding eviction if police come, and sweet-talking the real owners if they turn up. It also gives specific details for secretly lodging a caveat on the title to prevent the owners selling or mortgaging the property.
KPMG partner and property law expert Genevieve Overell described the guide and advice network as appalling. Ms Overell said she’d seen properties where squatters had barbecues on the living room carpet, and pulled timber off the building to burn for warmth. Others set up a neat home and treated it as their own, “like a tenant, except they don’t pay rent,” she said. Ms Overell said in the worst cases she’d sought court orders on behalf of owners to remove the trespassers. “You have to go there with a team of security guards and a locksmith . . . and retake the property,” she said. The process was costly and upsetting for the rightful owners, she said.
Real estate agents said empty investment properties, holiday homes, deceased estates and houses awaiting development were at highest risk of invasion. Dixon Kestles property manager Justine Ashby has recently helped owners eject squatters from a St Kilda home left vacant after it was auctioned. The Melbourne Squatters Guide is published on the internet by an unidentified group called the No Frills Collective.
The Herald Sun was alerted to the guide by a spokesman for the Squatters and Unwaged Airwaves radio show broadcast weekly on 3CR. It broadcasts the location of sites ripe for occupation by squatters and interviews with “success stories”. One man interviewed recently boasted he’d lived in the same Footscray squat for nine months, and had only paid rent once in four years. The man told the station he’d chosen a council-owned building in a commercial zone to avoid eviction. “The neighbours know what’s going on, but it doesn’t seem to bother anybody too much,” he said.
A radio show spokesman, who called himself Chummy Fleming, said possibly thousands of houses and buildings across Melbourne were occupied by squatters. “I know some families who have been in the same place for five years,” he said. “Their kids go to school in the area and they end up paying rates and phone and electricity bills on the property . . . even though they don’t own it.” The full extent of the squatters’ invasion is difficult to detect because absent owners are usually unaware their property has been taken over. Social worker Les Twentyman said high rents were forcing people to squat.