Lifestyle choice or emergency housing? TheSite.org looks at the ins and outs of squatting.
Squatting has been with us for many hundreds of years. The earliest cases can be traced back to 1381 when the Forcible Entry Act was passed. Following the end of the First and Second World wars, some soldiers were forced to live in empty or derelict properties due to lack of decent housing.
From the 1960s onwards, squatting has been on the increase, with co-operatives and organisations springing up attracting people from all ages and backgrounds. In fact, one of the better-known squatting co-ops was a cluster of streets in the London Fields area of east London, which was home to artists, the unemployed, students and even office workers living a nine-to-five lifestyle.
Why do squatters choose this particular way of life?
Sometimes it's because they've been made homeless and have been living on the streets, or cannot face the local council's policy of housing the homeless in bed and breakfasts or hostels (that's if there's space). Others will also see it as a lifestyle choice.
According to the Empty Homes Agency, there are nearly one million empty homes in the UK.
The Advisory Service for Squatters offers legal and practical advice for anyone who may want to (or needs to) squat. It says: "There is enough empty property other than homes, e.g. offices to be converted into the equivalent of 700,000 homes. The number of squatters has been estimated recently to be as high as 30,000 (The Guardian), but a more realistic estimate would be a little under 20,000, very few of whom are outside England and Wales, and most of those are in London."
Squatting is an unlawful practice but its not illegal.
Hackney Council, which has had well-publicised battles with squatters in the past, had this to say on the subject: "It's a fallacy that Hackney council has lots of squatted premises anymore. These days we have very few. If we do we move very quickly to sort the problem out. We have a policy of regenerating empty properties."
Is squatting illegal?
It didn't used to be, but it is now. From September 1, 2012, squatting in a residential building is considered a criminal act. If the property owner alerts the police, you could be looking at a maximum prison sentence of six months and/or a £5,000 fine.
Police must prove the person knowingly entered the property as a trespasser with the intent to live there. So, if you fall behind on your rent, your landlord can't accuse you of squatting.
This law is new and hasn't been tested in a court yet, so we're unsure as to how exactly it will be implemented. But 'squatters rights' - as they were known - are now a thing of the past if you're squatting in a residential property.
Alternatives to squatting
Squatting is, however, a last resort when it comes to accommodation. A good compromise is becoming a property guardian instead. This is where you move into a disused property, such as a school or office block, with a number of other property guardians, and look after the building legally on behalf of the owners. All your bills are paid for and you pay a very minimal rent - say £100 a month.
You will need to register with - and be vetted by - a property guardian company first, which will then inform you of accommodation that becomes available. But the benefit is it's all above board, legal and - most importantly - safe.
Read the comment policy
Use our free question and answer service and speak to an expert!