As Australia’s rental crisis descends into a state of catastrophe, more people are turning to squatting to put roofs over their heads.
For some, squatting comes as a response to suffocating cost of living pressures and a serious shortage of affordable housing. For others, it’s a lifestyle choice borne of a rejection of capitalism.
“Just like cops, all landlords are vermin,” James*, 32, told VICE. “There are lots of reasons why for-profit housing is broken, and it’s too much to get into, but you won’t catch me paying rent to anyone soon.”
Now based in Sydney’s affluent eastern suburbs, where the median house price is hovering around $3.6 million, James falls into the second camp. He works a stable full-time job that earns him just under the national median income and “wouldn’t necessarily” classify himself as “poor”.
This isn’t the first squat he and his housemates have shared, either. Typically, they’ll scout out a place for about two-to-three months to make sure that whoever owns it isn’t just out of town or on holiday, before eventually finding a way to breach a door. In the event that whoever does own the house returns, he said, they just make a run for it.
Otherwise, their stay generally involves cleaning and maintaining the property like any other, maybe doing some light renovations, and moving all of the utilities into their names. And, at least according to James and the squatters he knows, more people have begun to join them.
According to Google Trends alone – an admittedly vague marker – searches for “squatters rights” in Australia have been on a steep incline since 2004, reaching peaks in November 2018, and then again in November 2021.
Over on Reddit, meanwhile, a smorgasbord of landlords, or posts made reluctantly by their kids, have come to riddle r/AusLegal in search of advice about how to remove an onslaught of squatters as well.
The phenomenon isn’t one bound by Australian borders, either. Major cities home to housing crises of their own also host comparatively larger, and growing, communities of squatters. In London, anti-capitalist squatters are thriving, as was underscored most recently by those who occupied a west-London mansion allegedly owned by a Russian oligarch sanctioned by the British government for his ties to the Kremlin.
In the US, cities like New York and Los Angeles play host to burgeoning communities of squatters, too, while cities around Europe are seeing a post-pandemic insurgence as well.
Australian law has long been kind to squatters around the country. It was only last year that a property developer was able to cry squatters’ rights – otherwise known as “adverse possession” – to claim ownership over a family home in Campbelltown, and just three years earlier that a man was able to seize a house in Sydney’s inner west, before claiming legal ownership, after squatting in it for 19 years.
The “use it or lose it” legal doctrine that offers a safety net to squatters under Australian property laws is still reported to see regular use around the country. But the way it’s used varies from state to state.
In New South Wales, for instance, a squatter can apply for ownership of the land they’ve moved into after a period of 12 years, so long as they’ve been “open” and “peaceful” on the premises through the full duration of their stay. For squatters in Queensland and Western Australia, that timeframe is the same.
The way James tells it, this just means “being nice to your neighbours” who, in his experience, have never really cared what he and any number of other housemates have been up to.
Over in South Australia, though, squatting is largely illegal, and neither the ACT nor the Northern Territory have any squatters’ rights baked into their property laws at all.
For anti-capitalist squatters around the country, refusing to pay rent is about more than being a public nuisance. Instead, they hope that their efforts are seen as a coordinated disruption to a housing market that continues to drive further wealth inequality in Australia.
In other words, James could afford to pay rent if he “wanted to”, but chooses not to – and hasn’t since 2015. Others, however, aren’t afforded the choice, and have turned to squatting as a means of survival.
John Engler, CEO of Shelter NSW, told VICE he wouldn’t be surprised if data soon arrives to support anecdotal reports of a rise in squatters around the country.
“In some ways, it’s a canary in the coal mine, if you like, about how broken the housing system is,” Engler said.
It’s not much of a reach to consider a possible rise in squatters as the result of surging rents, extremely low vacancy rates, and an exodus of residents both from CBDs and the nation’s most affluent suburbs, where scores of second-home owners might once have lived.
It’s a recipe that has backed Australia’s lowest income earners into a corner, pocketing low wages with weakening purchasing power, while swathes of residential and commercial properties stand empty.
According to Anglicare’s most recent annual rental affordability snapshot, only 2 percent of the rental properties on the market across the country in March were classified as “affordable” to workers earning the minimum wage. Australia’s national rental vacancy rate, meanwhile, is sitting at about 1 percent – the lowest it’s been in more than five years.
For those who rely on Centrelink for income support of any kind, matters were even worse.
Together, these groups account for more than 3 million Australians, or nearly 10 percent of the entire population – and growing.
As this cohort of Australians fall victim to an increasingly unlivable rental market, experts aren’t surprised that some refuse to pay up, while others have become so desperate that they will take the punt and just move into vacant properties. They say it shouldn’t come as a surprise to others, either. Especially to the two men running for Prime Minister at the federal election in just over two weeks’ time.
*James’ name has been changed to protect their identity.
Follow John on Twitter.
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