The topic of squatting — living in or using a dwelling without the owner’s permission — often elicits condemnation from the well-housed, confusion or fear from those who consider modern civilized life to revolve around a stable and secure home, and a general attitude that only dirty hippies would resort to essentially living illegally and at other people’s expense. However, understanding why people would squat in supposedly wealthy and well-housed nations speaks to something fundamental about social priorities that protest movement historians would do well to analyze.
Looking into the history of housing in postwar Britain, I found that despite the commonplace rhetoric of being the “best housed nation in the world,” by the late 1960s, over two million Britons lived in a genuine housing disaster. Accommodations were often overcrowded, filthy, dangerous, and temporary, and many were sleeping on the floors of relatives or out on the streets.1
In response to insecure or non-existent housing, the squatting movement was born as a protest against governmental policies that left many people out of the postwar drive to house everybody in new, clean, and modern council housing. It also protested against the presence of private and public housing left empty up to several years for no reason, while families resorted to living in hostels or sleeping outside.
What started as a protest action in late 1968 by veteran radicals from the anti-nuclear and anti-Vietnam war movements grew into a widespread direct-action movement built from the grassroots to challenge the housing policies of the government, as well as to establish the principle that a decent house is a right for all and should not be subjected to market forces. Over the course of the 1970s, nearly a quarter of a million Britons squatted at some point in their lives.2
Some squatted for several years before they were rehoused permanently or their squats were legally recognized as cooperative houses. Squatting went from protest to practical solution for many when faced with the choice of homelessness or living in inadequate temporary shelters. The success of the squatting movement should be measured in so far as it housed people who would otherwise have been homeless, and it established a method of confronting social and economic forces that allowed people to be homeless for the sake of profit.
Postwar Squatting: A Short History
The modern squatters’ movement began with a publicity stunt on December 1, 1968. Ron Bailey led a group of housing activists and anarchists in the occupation of the £15,000 per unit luxury flats called The Hollies, which had stood empty for years.3 This and subsequent protest actions around London in 1968-69 attracted widespread and mostly positive media attention. Bailey and his comrades put the injustice of badly housed people living alongside empty flats into sharp focus. They also established, through research and later court cases, that squatters were protected by nearly ancient laws. The Forcible Entry Act of 1391 states a trespasser (such as a squatter) cannot be forcibly removed by the owner, but that a court order must be granted to evict. This gave squatters time to press their public case that they only squatted out of desperation and to make appeals to be legitimately housed.
Furthermore, trespassing in England at the time was a civil and not a criminal matter, so the police had no legal authority to intervene. Squatters were literally not breaking any laws and used the spectacle of occupying houses and resisting removal to draw attention to the problems of the housing market. They were often successful. In places like Redbridge, east London, squatters engaged in pitched battles with private bailiffs, which resulted in establishing certain rights under the 1391 law in court, the bailiffs charged with riot, and the empty houses the squatters occupied were given over to them by the council.4
In Maida Vale, Westminster, squatters on Elgin Ave held off eviction attempts for over three years until the council agreed to rehouse all 200 squatters in permanent council housing.5 Sympathetic press coverage of the early squatters resulted in part because nearly two million Britons were badly housed or homeless, and the government didn’t seem to be doing anything about it.
In the mid-1970s, an image of new anti-social but legally protected squatters who would take over people’s houses when they went on vacation began to emerge. This folk devil lived mostly in well-housed people’s imaginations. Nonetheless, squatting remains a protest and solution to people’s housing needs until this day, continually changing with the efforts to suppress it. In the late 1970s, many squatters tried to establish housing cooperatives with the blessing of the local government. In the 1980s, many squatters continued to evade enforcement of the law by switching squats or taking their case to court.
It wasn’t until 1992 that trespass became a criminal violation, but it was still unlikely anyone would go to jail for squatting. In 2012, squatting in residential property became illegal, so the majority of squats in England now develop in warehouses, office spaces, or other empty non-residential buildings. A few of the squatting advocacy organizations that formed in the 1970s, such as the Advisory Service for Squatters in Whitechapel, continue providing information to squatters and pressing the case that housing is a right for all.
Squatting as Legitimacy Protest
Squatting was as much a practical movement to house the homeless as it was a protest movement against the governmental and market forces that created homelessness and poor housing to begin with. Despite the enduring image of dirty, drug-addled hippies taking a family’s home when they left for holiday, many squatters were rather ordinary people who were left out of the postwar welfare state’s housing policy. The 1948 National Assistance Act required and empowered the government to house the population by providing shelter to homeless families and building more houses.
All postwar governments built houses until the late 1970s. However, the numbers built never equaled the number needed, and certain categories of people, especially single people without children, had no right to social housing. In the private sphere, conditions could be as atrocious as the rents were high. Squatting emerged as a direct action protest against the inability or unwillingness of the government to do its job under the law. It was also a protest against the legitimacy of both public and private housing authorities to leave houses empty while there were millions of badly housed or homeless people.
One key way we might understand squatting is to look to E.P. Thompson’s “Moral Economy of the English Crowd” in which he argues that bread riots were actually more about common people asserting what they considered a “legitimate” price for an essential product: bread. When prices rose in times of dearth, or distributors tried to make a profit from a necessity, the English crowd would take the grain or bread by force and distribute it at what they thought was a fair price.6
If one considers that the postwar generation grew up steeped in the rhetoric and reality of new, modern public housing as a right, then empty buildings, high rents, and dilapidated shelters from the last century seem illegitimate. The squatters made appeals to this sense of legitimacy early on by arguing that houses were better kept in the hands of squatters rather than left empty to crumble waiting for the market to pick up. They also often offered to pay a fair rent as well as taxes and council rates. In this way, the squatters attempted to not be seen as freeloaders, but instead as engaged in a struggle against inefficient government provisioning and against the unfair commoditization of a needed product.
Not only in England, but across western Europe the squatting phenomenon took hold in the 1970s and continues today. The squatter communities of Copenhagen, Berlin, and Amsterdam enjoy nearly mythic status among radicals and nonconformists.7 Squatting will exist whenever political and economic priorities allow or encourage a housing market that places shelter out of many people’s ability to pay or keeps houses empty in order to increase profit. The 2008 housing market crash in the US proved how fundamental housing is to the wider stability of society. The squatters’ demand that housing be a right is therefore an important point to consider in social and economic planning. We would all do well to understand this relationship.
- Ministry of Housing and Local Government, Welsh Office, Old Houses into New Homes (London: HMSO Cmnd. 3602, 1968), 1-2. Return to text.
- Nick Wates, “Introducing Squatting,” in Nick Wates (ed.), Squatting: The Real Story (London: Bay Leaf Books, 1980), 1. Return to text.
- Ron Bailey, The Squatters (Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1973), 35. Return to text.
- Ibid, 115. Return to text.
- Piers Corbyn, “We Won, You Should Fight Too,” in Nick Wates (ed.) Squatting: The Real Story (London: Bay Leaf Books, 1980), 131. Return to text.
- E.P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past and Present 55 (Feb. 1971): 78, 79, and 112-117. Return to text.
- Two good recent books about squatting in Europe are Squatting Europe Kollektive, Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013); and Bart van der Steen, The City is Ours: Squatting and Autonomous Movements in Europe from the 1970s to the Present (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2014). Return to text.