Squatting is the act of occupying an abandoned or unoccupied space or building that the squatter does not own, rent or otherwise have permission to use. Squatting is significantly more common in urban areas than rural areas, especially when urban decay occurs. According to author Robert Neuwirth, there are one billion squatters globally, that is to say about one in every seven people on the planet.
In many of the world's poorer countries there are extensive slums or shanty towns, typically built on the edges of major cities and consisting almost entirely of self-constructed housing built without the landowner's permission. While these settlements may in time grow to become both legalised and indistinguishable from normal residential neighbourhoods, they start off as squats with minimal basic infrastructure. Thus, there is no sewage system, drinking water must be bought from vendors or carried from a nearby tap and if there is electricity, it is stolen from a passing cable.
To squat in many countries is in itself a crime; in others it is only seen as a civil conflict between the owner and the occupants. Property law and the state have traditionally favored the property owner. However, in many cases where squatters had de facto ownership, laws have been changed to legitimize their status. Squatters often claim rights over the spaces they have squatted by virtue of occupation, rather than ownership; in this sense, squatting is similar to (and potentially a necessary condition of) adverse possession, by which a possessor of real property without title may eventually gain legal title to the real property.
Anarchist Colin Ward comments: "Squatting is the oldest mode of tenure in the world, and we are all descended from squatters. This is as true of the Queen [of the United Kingdom] with her 176,000 acres as it is of the 54 per cent of householders in Britain who are owner-occupiers. They are all the ultimate recipients of stolen land, for to regard our planet as a commodity offends every conceivable principle of natural rights.
Besides being residences, some squats are used as social centres or host give-away shops, pirate radio stations and cafés. In Spanish-speaking countries squatters receive several names, like okupas in Spain or Argentina (from the verb ocupar meaning "to occupy"), or paracaidistas in Mexico (meaning "paratroopers", because they "parachute" themselves at unoccupied land).
There are large squatter communities in Kenya such as Kibera in Nairobi. A BBC News report described it as follows: "The first thing that hits you here is this rich stench of almost 1 million people living in this ditch - in mud huts, with no sewage pipes, no roads, no water, no toilet, in fact, with no services of any kind.
In South Africa, squatters tend to live in informal settlements or squatter camps on the outskirts of the larger cities, often but not always near townships. In 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected President it was estimated that of South Africa's 44 million inhabitants, 7.7 million lived in these settlements. The number has grown rapidly in the post-apartheid era. Many buildings, particularly in the inner city of Johannesburg have also been occupied by squatters. Property owners or government authorities can usually evict squatters after following certain legal procedures including requesting a court order. In Durban the city council routinely evicts without a court order in defiance of the law and there has been sustained conflict between the city council and a shack dwellers' movement known as Abahlali baseMjondolo. There has been a number of similar conflicts between shack dwellers, some linked with the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, and the city council in Cape Town. One of the most high profile cases have been the brutal evictions of squatters in the N2 Gateway homes in the suburb of Delft where over 20 residents were shot including a 3 year old child. There have been numerous complaints about the legality of government's actions and in particular whether the ruling of the judge was unfair given his party affiliations and the highly politicized nature of the case .
In Mumbai, there are an estimated 10 to 12 million inhabitants and six million of them are squatters. The squatters live in a variety of ways. Some possess two or three story homes built out of brick and concrete which they have inhabited for years. Geeta Nagar is a squatter village based beside the Indian Navy compound at Colaba. Squatter Colony in Malad East has existed since 1962 and now people living there pay a rent to the city council of 100 rupees a month. Dharavi is a community of one million squatters. The stores and factories situated there are mainly illegal and so are unregulated, but it is suggested that they do over $1 million in business every day.
Other squatters live in shacks, situated literally on a pavement next to the road, with very few possessions.
Activists such as Jockin Arputham are working for better living conditions for slum dwellers.
The Government tried to transfer those squatters to low cost housing projects, especially in Tondo (in the former Smokey Mountain landfill), Taguig (BLISS Housing Project), and in Rodriguez (formerly Montalban), Rizal.
In the nineteenth century, a squatter was a person who occupied a large tract of Crown land in order to graze livestock. At first this was done illegally, later under license. This type of squatting is covered in greater detail at Squatting (pastoral).
In more recent times, there have been squats in the major cities. It would be possible for squatters to be charged with criminal trespass under the Inclosed Lands Protection Act, but mainly squatters are simply evicted when they are discovered. As in the United Kingdom, there is the law of adverse possession but it is seldom used.
In Sydney, streets of terraced houses in areas such as the Rocks and Potts Point were squatted to prevent their demolition in the 1970s. The artists squatting empty buildings on Broadway owned by South Sydney City Council were evicted in 2000, before the Olympics. The Midnight Star was a squatted theatre used as a social centre, hosting music events, a cafe, a library, a free internet space and a Food Not Bombs kitchen. It was evicted in December 2002 following its use as a convergence centre for protests against the November World Trade Organisation talks. In 2003, a legal squat was organised for ten people who moved onto the site of an old incinerator at Green Square. A five year old squat was peacefully evicted in March 2008, when an office block in Belmain was demolished to make way for a park. The council voted to allow the squatters to stay in the building, which they called Iceland, until the plans for demolition were in place. One of the squatters said "About 20 people have lived here over the years and it's been a place for band rehearsals, art projects, people practising dance routines, bike workshops. Squatting gives you a chance to think about things other than how you are going to pay the rent and ways to contribute to the world.
In many European countries, there are squatted houses used as residences and also larger squatted projects where people pursue social and cultural activities. Examples of the latter include an old leper hospital outside Barcelona called Can Masdeu and a former military barracks called Metelkova in Slovenia. Squats can be run on anarchist principles, for example Villa Amalia in Greece, Ernst-Kirchweger-Haus in Austria (has legal status) or Blitz in Norway (has legal status). Young people squat buildings to use as concert venues for alternative types of music such as punk and hardcore. The eviction of one such place, Ungdomshuset, in March 2007 received international news coverage. Others have been legalised.
In Italy, there is Bussana Vecchia, a ghost town in Liguria which was abandoned in 1887 following an earthquake and subsequently squatted in the 1960s. In France, there is Collectif la vieille Valette, a self-supporting squat village which has been active since 1991.
In the 1970s, squatting in West German cities led to "a self-confident urban counterculture with its own infrastructure of newspapers, self-managed collectives and housing cooperatives, feminist groups, and so on, which was prepared to intervene in local and broader politics". The Autonomen movement protected squats against eviction and participated in radical direct action.
After the German reunification, many buildings were vacated due to the demise of former state-run enterprises and migration to the western parts of Germany, some of which then were occupied by squatters. In Berlin, the now-legalised squats are in desirable areas such as Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg. Before the reunification, squats in Berlin were mostly located in former West Berlin's borough of Kreuzberg. The squats were mainly for residential and social use. Squatting became known by the term "instandbesetzen", a portmanteau of "instandsetzen" (i.e. renovating) and "besetzen" (i.e. occupying).
In cities there is often a kraakspreekuur (squatters' conversation hour), at which people planning to squat can get advice from experienced squatters. In Amsterdam, where the squatting community is large, there are three kraakspreekuur sessions in different areas of the city and so-called 'wild' squatting (squatting a building without the help of the local group) is not encouraged. Dutch squatters use the term "krakers" to define people who squat houses with the aim of living in them (as opposed to people who break into buildings for the purpose of vandalism or theft).
There are many residential squats in Dutch cities such as Leiden, Rotterdam, Groningen, Nijmegen, Haarlem, Zwolle and Amsterdam. There are also some squats in the countryside such as a squatted village called Ruigoord near to Amsterdam and Fort Pannerden, near Nijmegen. Fort Pannerden (a military fort built in 1869) was evicted on November 8 2006 by a massive police operation which used military machinery and cost one million euros. The squatters then resquatted the fort on November 26 and have since made a deal with the local council which owns the fort.
Sometimes squats can become legalised. This is the case with the Poortgebouw in Rotterdam, which was squatted in 1980. In 1982, the inhabitants agreed to pay rent to the city council and they are still living there in 2008. The oRKZ (Oude Rooms-Katholieke Ziekenhuis) in Groningen, squatted in 1979, is an old Roman Catholic Hospital, which was declared legal in the 1980's.
Well-known squats include the OT301, Vrankrijk and the Binnenpret in Amsterdam, Anarres in Dordrecht, Het Slaakhuis in Rotterdam and the Landbouwbelang and Villa Vendex in Maastricht. De Blauwe Aanslag in The Hague was evicted in 2003.
Squatting gained a legal basis in the Netherlands in 1971, when the Supreme Court ruled that the concept of domestic peace ("huisvrede") (which means a house cannot be entered without the permission of the owner) also applied to squatters. Since then, the owner of the building must take the squatters to court (or take illegal action) in order to evict them. A law was passed in 1994 which made it illegal to squat a building which was empty for less than one year.
There have been moves to ban squatting. In 1978, the Council of Churches launched a protest which scotched the idea. In June 2006 two ministers from the Dutch government (Sybilla Dekker and Piet Hein Donner) proposed a plan to make squatting illegal. Other ministers, such as Alexander Pechtold, were not in favor of this plan. Representatives of the four largest Dutch cities wrote a letter stating that it would not be in their interest to ban squatting. Squatters nationwide made banners and hung them on their squats in protest.
Squatting became popular in Spain in the 1960s and 1970s, as a result of the shortage of urban accommodation during the rural exodus. It was revived in the mid-1980s during the La Movida Madrileña, under the name of the okupa movement, when thousands of illegal squats were legalized. Influenced by the British Levellers, the movement's popularity rose again during the 1990s, once more due to a housing crisis, this time related to the 1992 Summer Olympics and the concomitant urban regeneration. Property speculation and house price inflation continue to catalyze okupa activism.
Related to the anarchist movement, okupas support the ideal of Autogestion and create social centers, which carry out various grassroots activities. The okupa movement represents a highly politicized form of squatting, so much so that participants often claim they live in squats as a form of political protest first and foremost. The movement is involved in various other social struggles, including the alter-globalization movement. In 1996, during José María Aznar's presidency, the first specific legislation against squatting was passed and became the prelude to many squat evictions. In the barrio of Lavapiés in Madrid, the Eskalera Karakola was a feminist self-managed squat, which was active from 1996 to 2005 and participated in the nextGENDERation network.
As of 2007 there were approximately 200 occupied houses in Barcelona. At least 45 of these, as Infousurpa, a collective event calendar mentions, are used as social and cultural centers – so called "open houses". A number of popular rock groups have come out of this kind of venue, such as Sin Dios in Madrid and Ojos de Brujo in Barcelona.
The Basque Country is another area where a high number of houses are occupied. There are at least 46 squats or gaztetxes ("youth's houses" in the Basque language). During the 80s a house was occupied by squatters in almost every town and the booming punk movement used them to organize concert tours, and expositions. During the last 10 years, at least 15 gaztetxes have closed down, often after protests and clashes with the police . The most well-known gaztetxe currently is from Gasteiz. Squatting has always been related with the Basque independence movement.
The RHINO ("Retour des Habitants dans les Immeubles Non-Occupés"; in English, "Return of Inhabitants to Non-Occupied Buildings") was a 19 year long squat in Geneva. It occupied two buildings on the Boulevard des Philosophes, a few blocks away from the main campus of the University of Geneva. The RHINO organisation often faced legal troubles, and Geneva police evicted the inhabitants on July 23, 2007.
In 2003, it was estimated that there were 15,000 squatters in England and Wales.
The legal process of eviction can take a month or longer, perhaps even years. This is what happens when the property is owned by a council or a housing association. Private landlords have been known to use various intimidatory methods to convince a squatter to move out or indeed, to pay squatters to leave.
Local Authority Housing Departments, facing rising court costs when evicting squatters, often resort to taking out the plumbing and toilets in empty buildings to deter squatters.
To show that the occupier of the squatted building is in fact in physical possession of the property, squatters often put up a legal warning known as a 'Section 6', a copy of which is often displayed on the front door. Doing so attempts to claim that there are people living there and they have a legal right to be there. It also claims that anyone — even the technical owner of the property — who tries to enter the building without permission is committing an offence. These claims are fallible following amendments to the law in 1994.
Some properties are still occupied by squatters who have resisted eviction for 20 years. Squatters have a right to claim ownership of a dwelling after 12 years of having lived there if no one else claims it, by adverse possession under common law. In practice this can be difficult, since the squatter must prove in a court of law that he or she has lived in the building continuously for the whole 12 years. For example, St Agnes Place in London had been lived in for 30 years until 29 November 2005, when Lambeth Council evicted the entire street. The law of adverse possession has been fundamentally altered following the passing of the Land Registration Act 2002. In effect, after 10 years of actual physical possession, a squatter must apply to the Land Registry to have their title recognised as the owner in fee simple. The original owner of the property will receive notification from the Land Registry and will be able to defeat the application by simple objection. Obviously, this will seriously curtail the ability of squatters to claim adverse possession.
In London, a group called the Advisory Service for Squatters runs a volunteer service helping squatters. It publishes the Squatters' Handbook and has drafted a Legal Warning to be used by squatters.
The most empty homes in the UK are in Birmingham (17,490), Liverpool (15,692) and Manchester (14,017). North West England has the most empty homes (135,106), which is close to 5% of its housing. The fewest empty homes are in South East England and East Anglia, but there are currently thousands of empty homes in London, as house prices are soaring above the level of income that most people earn.
More recently there was a huge squatting movement involving ex-servicemen and their families following World War II. This involved thousands of people occupying sites as diverse as former military bases and luxury apartment blocks in West London.
The 1960s saw the development of the Family Squatting Movement which sought to mobilise people to take control of empty properties and use them to house homeless families from the Council Housing Waiting List. This movement was originally based in London (where Ron Bailey and Jim Radford were instrumental in helping to establish family squatting campaigns in several London boroughs) and several local Family Squatting Associations signed agreements with Borough Councils to use empty properties under licence (although only after some lengthy and bitter campaigns had been fought — most particularly in the Boroughs of Redbridge and Southwark).
In 1969 members of the London Street Commune squatted a mansion at 144 Piccadilly in central London to highlight the issue of homelessness but were quickly evicted. In the early seventies Ron Bailey and Jim Radford were closely involved in founding the Family Squatting Advisory Service which promoted and provided information for Family Squatting Associations and direct action Housing Campaigns. However, there was a growing conflict between the original activists of the Family Squatting Movement and a newer wave of squatters who simply rejected the right of landlords to charge rent and who believed (or claimed to) that seizing property and living rent-free was a revolutionary political act. These new wave squatters (often young and single rather than homeless families) were a mixture of Anarchists, Trotskyists — the International Marxist Group (IMG) being especially prominent — and self-proclaimed hippie-dropouts and they denounced the idea that squatters should seek to make agreements with local Councils to use empty property and that Squatting Associations should then become landlords (or Self Help Housing Associations as they were sometimes styled) in their own right and charge rent.
In 1979 there were estimated to be 50,000 squatters throughout Britain, with the majority (30,000) living in London. There was a London's Squatters' Union in which Piers Corbyn was involved. For eighteen months it was housed at Huntley Street, where over 150 people lived in 52 flats. The Union organised festivals and provided homes for the homeless.
Most squatting in the US is dependent on law enforcement and the person legally considered to be owner of the property being unaware of the occupants. Often the most important factors in the longevity of squats in the US are apathy of the owner and the likeliness of neighbors to call police. This was not always the case, particularly in the era of Westward expansion, wherein the Federal government specifically recognized the rights of squatters. For example, see the Preemption Act of 1841.
The United States Homestead Act legally recognized the concept of homesteading and distinguished it from squatting since it gave homesteaders permission to occupy unclaimed lands. Additionally, US states which have a shortage of housing tend to tolerate squatters in property awaiting redevelopment until the developer is ready to begin work; however, at that point the laws tend to be enforced.
Squats used for living in can be divided into two types (although they are not absolutes): So-called "back window squats" (the most common type, in which occupants sneak in and out of the building with the intent of hiding that they live there), and "front door squats" (where the occupants make little or no effort to conceal their comings and goings). Many squats may start out as one or the other and then change over time. Frequently squatters will move in and then later assess how open they can be about their activities before they approach the neighbors; others will not move into a place until they have first met and discussed the idea with the neighbors. The difference between the two types can be signs of vast differences in philosophies of squatting and its purpose, how long the occupants plan to be around, and on the atmosphere of the neighborhood, among many other factors.
Squatters can be young people living in punk houses or low-income or homeless people, as observed in Philadelphia. A group called Homes Not Jails advocates squatting houses to end the problem of homelessness. It has opened "about 500 houses, 95% of which have lasted six months or less. In a few cases, [these] squats have lasted for two, three or even six years."
In early 2008, Cleveland, Ohio began recognizing hundreds of homeless people taking shelter in foreclosed homes.
It is estimated that in the 1990s there were between 500 and 1,000 squatters occupying 32 buildings on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The buildings had been abandoned as a result of speculation by owners or police raids as part of a crackdown on drug use. As the area became gentrified, the squats were evicted, Dos Blockos being one. Three buildings on 13th Street were evicted without notification following a prolonged legal battle in which the squatters argued through their lawyer Stanley Cohen that they were entitled to ownership of the buildings through adverse possession since they had lived there since 1983. In 1995 a preliminary injunction had been granted against the eviction plans, but this was overturned by state appellate.
Despite squatting being illegal, artists had begun to squat buildings to live in and use as atelier space. European squatters coming to New York brought ideas of cooperative living with them such as a bar, support between squats, and tool exchange.
In 2002, eleven squats out of the twelve remaining on the Lower East Side signed a deal with the city council brokered by the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board in which they bought the buildings for $1 and agreed to undertake essential renovation work. One of the squats is C-Squat; another is the social center ABC No Rio, which was founded in 1980.
In Brazil, these squatter communities are called favelas and a famous example is Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro, estimated to be home of 500,000 people. Favelas are home to the extremely poor of Brazil. They lack much infrastructure and public services. They are equivalent to slums or shanty towns. There are 25 million people living in favelas all over Brazil.
There are also rural squatter movements, such as the Landless Workers' Movement which has an estimated 1.5 million members.