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Squatters take London’s housing crisis into their own hands | Housing

Squatters take London’s housing crisis into their own hands | Housing

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In the shopping streets and housing estates of the South London town of Croydon, some once-derelict buildings are slowly coming back to life.

At a former school, peeling walls are getting a new coat of paint, and laundry hangs on a line to dry. Over at a disused youth centre, there is laughter in the gymnasium-turned-dormitory, and a vase of purple flowers decorates a scrubbed kitchen counter.

The Reclaim Croydon collective, a squatters group, has taken over disused commercial premises to provide beds for the homeless, saying it is providing a community-based solution to a broken housing market.

“The government is failing homeless people,” one of the youth centre’s new occupants, who goes by the name Leaf, told Reuters.

Britain has long lacked enough housing, but a 22 percent jump in private rents in England over the last five years has left growing numbers of people struggling to find anywhere to live. Housing routinely appears in the top five issues that pollsters report as the most important for voters ahead of Thursday’s general election.

The high rents and unaffordable house prices have meant people in their 20s or 30s are still living at home with parents or in house shares. At the most acute end, growing numbers are sleeping on the streets and in empty buildings, official figures show.

Studies have found that ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected, with a 2022 report published by the Centre for Homelessness Impact charity showing that Black people were more than three times as likely to become homeless as white people in England.

Both Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives and the main opposition Labour Party have pledged to tackle the housing crisis by building more homes.

Housing campaigners have long argued that local councils should also utilise some of the roughly 700,000 vacant homes in England as a cheaper and faster solution.

“We’re seeing more and more councils saying that temporary accommodation budgets for people that they theoretically have a legal duty to house are literally bankrupting them,” Chris Bailey, campaign manager for the Action on Empty Homes charity, told Reuters.

Croydon – a large, built-up town with high-rise apartment and office blocks – had nearly 4,000 disused properties in October 2023, according to government data.

In the main shopping streets, shuttered businesses and posters advertising closing down sales are tucked among discount stores and a bustling market.

Alex, 28, a Reclaim Croydon organiser, said the group has refurbished about 30 buildings since it was formed last year, providing homes for more than 100 people.

The group first ensures the buildings are vacant and have basic necessities like running water and electricity, he said. It then carries out repairs to make them habitable, which can include installing showers and kitchens, fixing leaks and removing mould.

The people who live in the buildings come from diverse backgrounds. Some are trying to escape the streets, others the upheaval of living in different temporary accommodation.

“A lot of people in Britain just get stuck in homelessness limbo, and they prefer to stay with us,” Alex said.

A squatting culture has existed in Britain for hundreds of years. After World War II, many soldiers and their families moved into empty military bases. In the 1970s, the movement took on a political edge as anarchists took over buildings in acts of protest.

Since 2012, it has been illegal to squat in residential buildings. But commercial squatting is not a criminal offence, provided no damage is done, and the squatters leave when ordered by a court.

The British Landlords Association estimates squatting in commercial buildings is up by almost 300 percent since December 2021, which its head, Sajjad Ahmad, attributes to government policies rather than squatters.

In 2017, the government said 300,000 new homes were needed a year in England by the mid-2020s to fix the affordability squeeze. Since then, fewer than 250,000 have been built on average each year. Some owners have also been happy to leave properties empty, benefitting from rising valuations.

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