It started with banging and smashing sounds somewhere above their flats. After several minutes water began to pour through the ceiling. Then the electricity went off.
The squatters had been living in the empty council owned flats on the Kings Crescent Estate in Hackney for just three weeks and they claim that contractors, possibly employed by the council, deliberately flooded them out of their homes on their eviction day. It was mid winter but by that evening the community was no more and another 25 people were homeless in London.
Amongst this small community were migrant workers tossed onto the unemployment scrapheap by recession; students reduced to poverty by the latest student loans cock-up; former rough-sleepers and a family with an eleven-year-old child and a week-old baby, victims of recession, unemployment and benefits bureaucracy.
The group were served a premises closure order under the Anti-Social Behaviour Act rather than a traditional eviction notice. This meant the group faced criminal action for breaching the order.
Hackney Council says:
“The council does not endorse squatting under any circumstances. However, housing authorities have a statutory obligation to give advice to homeless people.”
When evicting squatters they recommend they contact their homelessness team who can provide them with advice.
Figures published by the London Evening Standard recently revealed there are 5,500 empty council homes in London, more than 3,000 of which have been unoccupied for more than 3 months. More than four-and-a-half thousand people were sleeping rough in London last year – a 15 per cent increase from 2008. There were more than 7,000 homelessness applications in 2008 and there are 353,000 people on council housing waiting lists across the capital.
In Tower Hamlets, where there are 22,500 people on the council housing waiting list, almost half of the borough’s 300 empty council houses have been taken over by squatters. Across London 343 empty houses have been occupied by squatters in the past year.
Hackney Council say that just 24 of their properties have been occupied by squatters in the past 4 years, although EastLondonLines’ investigation has found others not listed in the council’s data.
Natalie Walker is one of the squatters evicted from the Kings Crescent Estate Community Housing Project after a just month last December. She believes more and more people are turning to squatting, to provide themselves with somewhere to live, as a result of the economic crisis. The majority of the Kings Crescent squatters were immigrant workers who had recently become unemployed:
“There were a lot of Eastern Europeans who’d become unemployed because of the recession, most of whom had been working in Britain a long time, some as long as ten years. Mostly in unskilled work, as labourers for example. Most of the people there had never experienced unemployment or homelessness before. One person was a student who couldn’t claim benefits because he didn’t have an address and so can’t afford rent and was stuck jumping through hoops trying to make a claim. And he’s trying to study but he’s cold and he’s tired and he’s not doing any of his work and it’s devastating. And then there was the family with the eleven-year-old and a week-old baby. The woman was eight-and-a-half months pregnant when they moved into the squat.
“And so now they are homeless and having difficulties with the benefits system and two borough councils are arguing over who’s responsibility it is to house them.”
Natalie got involved in the squat project with a group of housing activists who wanted to create a community squat to provide housing for those in need and also to draw attention to both the housing need and the fact that so many properties are lying empty in London.
“It was because the building had been empty and vacant for so long that we chose that space. That was part of the purpose, that this was publicly owned housing sitting there empty and then there are homeless people who can’t get housing so why not make positive use of that space.”
A volunteer with the Advisory Service For Squatters (ASS), who did not want to be named, said that squatting is becoming more common as a DIY solution to the problems of lack of affordable homes, high private sector rents and the under-provision of social housing by local authorities. He said that most of the 20 cases a-day they deal with are Eastern European migrant workers, many of who have been badly hit by the recession and record unemployment. ASS say that squatting has also been made easier by the huge number of empty houses in London.
Matt Sellwood, the Green party’s national housing spokesperson and candidate for mayor of Hackney, says that squatting should be licenced by councils in their empty properties to provide housing for those in need. Mr Sellwood supported the Kings Crescent squatters.