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Spanish squatters being evicted from the 'Kukutza' social centre in Bilbaoby by armed police

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Europe's empty houses drive new wave of squatting activism

Almudena Serpis

6th January, 2012

As the recession continues, squatting across Europe has enjoyed a renaissance. Although controversial, occupying vacant buildings has become a form of activism, promoting alternative lifestyles and challenging the mainstream

Just around the corner from the centre of Madrid the windows of what used to be an abandoned hotel are covered with banners which announced that the hotel was in the hands of the people. Inside, as the Ecologist walked up some dark stairs full of rubble, with just a small torch to guide us, a woman with her baby in one arm and a huge torch in the other passed by and disappeared downstairs into the darkness. 

This Madrid hotel was squatted after a world wide demonstration in October against the economic crisis. It was destined to accommodate around 100 people of all ages and backgrounds who had been evicted. 'We need to start taking matters into our own hands,' said a man who helped run the place.

Since our visit the hotel had been brutally evicted by police, who at 7am stormed into the building and threw everyone out onto the street. Now the winter is here and those who were evicted will have to face the courts.

As the current recession continues to bite, with increasing numbers of people losing their homes, unemployment and poverty on the rise, mortgages remaining difficult to secure and traditional social security networks breaking down, squatting across Europe, particularly in large cities with an abundance of empty homes, is undergoing something on a renaissance.

Although highly controversial - with sections of the tabloid media delighting in whipping up (frequently inaccurate) scare stories - squatting has a long and colourful history and commentators point to the pastimes' often positive aspects including housing otherwise homeless people and, as has been demonstrated in mainland Europe particularly, providing a hub for the creation of alternative, sustainable social communities.      

Empty homes

According to statistics by the British independent charity Empty Homes, there are 720,000 empty homes in England, and this could sum up to around a million empty homes across the UK. In Spain a study by the community of owners and property management entity LCD revealed that there are around 3.5 million empty homes - that amounts to a staggering 13.2  per cent of all Spanish houses. In Madrid alone there are 337, 212 houses out of use, according to the study.

In contrast, due to the crisis, it is harder and harder to afford a suitable home. On top of that, those who cannot pay their mortgages are increasingly being left without a roof over the heads. In Spain, banks are evicting 178 families a day, according to the Spanish platform of those affected by mortgages PAH.

'As long as there are not sufficient adequate housing solutions for homeless people, it is senseless to criminalise squatting,' said the director of FEANTSA, the European Federation of National Organisations Working with Homeless People. On the contrary though, he added that 'promoting squatting as a solution to homelessness is equally senseless.'

But whilst some squat solely out of need, others see squatting as a legitimate use of abandoned spaces, as well as making visible the power of ordinary people to rehabilitate buildings and transforming them into houses and social centres. 'Squats are often used as a form of direct action against the system, as a way of self-sufficiency,' says one member of the squatting office of Madrid 'it is a way of denouncing owners who have neglected the use of their own property by abandoning it, and a way of saving your own bacon.'

Many squats are transformed into social centres in order to offer an alternative place to meet and socialise, plan and educate. Needless to say many such places quickly become hubs for activism and counter-culture. An old leper hospital in the outskirts of Barcelona which had been abandoned for 53 years is now the squatted social centre Can Masdeu, a place of culture exchange offering all sorts of DIY workshops.

Public opinion has long been against squatting, picturing young punks high on drugs in a dark living room, but as more buildings are squatted neighbours and owners are increasingly divided in their views. A home owner who has just signed a contract with a  group of squatters who live in his building recently said that 'it is true that some squatters squat out of laziness, but more and more people are now doing it for need and for political reasons. It's the same with neighbours who rent, there are horrible ones and nice ones.'

Face to face with the law

Squatting laws vary a lot from country to country. In the UK and Italy, squatting is not a crime, it follows a civil procedure, unlike in France, Germany and Spain, where squatting can lead to a prison sentence.

On October 1st 2010 in Holland, a country with an extensive squatting tradition, squatting became outlawed. Before, it was legal if the property had been empty for a year, now this same act could lead to up to more than a year in jail. The Ecologist was present at demonstrations which took place in Amsterdam to protest against this new law, witnessing little children who lived as squatters carrying banners that read 'I am a criminal.'

A lawyer who specialises in squatting (who preferred to remain anonymous for this article) explained that 'laws are implemented for the well being of all citizens... when it's those same citizens which start breaking those laws massively in order to reclaim something which they consider legitimate, then laws should change and adjust to the times to serve the greater good.'

He acknowledged that buildings are sometimes left in a bad shape after being taken over by irresponsible squatters who end up putting the building at risk and disturbing the neighbourhood. But 'this is no longer the usual case', adds the lawyer. Most buildings are squatted after been empty for some years. 'Squatters don't just burst in when someone is on holiday. They research buildings which seem to be abandoned and before squatting it they make sure it has been out of use for some time,' says a member of the squatting office of Madrid.

Would-be squatters can seek advice from online manuals or from a number of advice centres usually situated in alternative social centres. The squatting office of Barcelona, a squatting capital, which came into existence in 2006, receives all sorts of people from all over Europe. 'We advice people from all ages and backgrounds, some with lots of squatting experience and others who want to do it for the first time,' says one adviser.

In the UK the Brighton-based Justice? organisation sparked national headlines after setting up the now famous 'squatters estate agency' in the early 1990s in response to the then-government's policy on squatters and housing. The agency advertised empty properties and advised would-be residents of the individual property's characteristics and facilities.

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