housing

For Squatters Like Riz, Australian Wealth Inequality Is Pretty Real

Here's what happens when houses become investments only.
August 2, 2017, 1:41am
All photos by the author

We're sitting out the back of Riz's new place with a couple of beers and watching the sun set while we talk about wealth inequality. We get talking about how federal Treasurer Scott Morrison got on the stump last week and told Australia that wealth inequality wasn't rising, but actually getting better.

Riz missed the news, so I filled them in on how The Australian had been saying the same thing for weeks and how the The Financial Review published a bizarre editorial claiming that everything is just fine, even though the head of the Reserve Bank later contradicted all these statements by saying that yes, wealth inequality has increased, and things generally suck for non-homeowners such as Riz.

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That's when we get talking about the two thirds of politicians who own more than one property, compared to one in five among the general population. How young people are locked out of the property market while rents are rising, and one in seven properties in the Sydney CBD sit empty. According to ACOSS, 30.4 percent of people below the age of 24 are living in poverty. That's nearly one in three.

"It doesn't make me angry," Riz says. "I don't actually hate rich people when they use their wealth to help the underprivileged. I'm sure there are good rich people and bad, but it does reinforce the stereotypes I have about them."

Riz knows wealth inequality is rising because about eight weeks ago they moved into someone's abandoned investment property and started living there. Riz is a squatter. It's not something they try to hide, though to be safe we aren't using their name for this story, and Riz asked us not use any gender pronouns.

Most people are alright with it, Riz says. The other day, their neighbours—an elderly couple—swung by for a visit when they saw signs of life in the old house. While making small talk they asked if Riz was renting; Riz told them straight out what the deal was.

"There's no point lying to people," Riz says. "It's disrespectful."

The news went down fine with the neighbours. Riz was in the process of cleaning up the house and they were mostly just happy it was being put to some use. The couple even told him about someone else down the road who was also squatting.

This isn't Riz's first time, either. They're 31 and first got involved through the punk community while doing Food Not Bombs. It wasn't so much a hard-luck story as it was a rejection of capitalism.

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"There's a whole bunch of reasons." Riz says. "There's a housing crisis. It's stolen land. There's an empty, wasted house—why not live in it? If you're paying rent, you're paying off someone's mortgage. With the Housing Trust, when it used to operate properly, there was a rent to buy option so low income people could buy a house."

"If you want to buy a house now, you got to get 50k. There's no chance."

Since then, they've been squatting around Adelaide. There's almost an art to it, Riz says. You don't just rush in and set up. Once you notice a building is quiet, you take your time. First you make sure no one else is living there, and when you move in you wait a few weeks to see if someone comes to kick you out.

"You're lucky if you get two weeks in Adelaide," Riz says. "The last one I was in for eight months, then I went travelling. When I came back, it was only two weeks before we got kicked out."

Riz shows me around the place in Adelaide's western suburbs, an old federation-era workers cottage with an added extension. It would have been beautiful once, and may yet still make a developer happy.

It's been about two months now since Riz and their dog Cooper moved in, time enough to know no one is coming. Riz has cleared away some of the trash, hooked up a solar panel to compensate for the lack of power and built a new white picket fence using old wooden pallets to keep Cooper from running into the street.

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It's hard to miss the symbolism.

Like every house Riz has been in, this one has a story. Judging by the trash someone left behind, and some letters from the bank saying the landlord owned money on two investment properties including this one, Riz figures it was being rented out to some international students. Then something happened to the landlord. Maybe he died, or went to hospital, or wound up in jail; either way, the students rode out their free-rent situation as long as they could, until they left, letting the place slide into neglect.

Until someone from the bank comes around looking to repossess it, Riz figures this is home. They want to be clear though: they don't have it so bad. There are a lot of people out there worse off than them.

"I'm privileged as fuck," says Riz, who is white, young, and educated—the child of a teacher and a minor government official. Riz even graduated university with a degree in environmental management, but realised it meant a career choice between helping a mining company rip up the earth, or working for a toothless government department that allowed them to. In the end, Riz chose neither.

All told, life's pretty sweet. Riz has a roof to sleep under and extra money in the bank because they don't pay rent. They work a casual job in conservation land management and if something goes wrong, there's always the punk community to fall back on.

For now at least, Riz has even got the white picket fence.

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