Radical Housing

Originally written for Concrete: attempting to dumb down the issues and package them in a digestible studenty way was actually pretty hard.

So you live in the Golden Triangle, your bathroom is covered in black mould, you can see your breath while you’re lying in bed – your bedroom happens to have the front door in it – and the landlord doesn’t give a toss. Welcome to student living, right? Well, yes, but there is another way – you don’t have to deal with the torment of numb fingers and toes, unscrupulous landlords or useless estate agents. For those who are committed to communal living as a life choice rather than a forced fact of life, radical housing solutions can make shared living a pleasant and productive experience, rather than the grimy, beer can-strewn chaos student living can occasionally become. Here are just some of the alternatives.

Co-operatives
Although housing co-ops are now few and far between, with waiting lists as long as your arm, there are a few springing up. There’s good reason why everyone wants to live in one: in addition to the cheap rent, you can throw yourself in to communal living and benefit from collective productivity – many co-ops feature vegetable gardens, beautiful DIY interiors, political activism and bangin’ house parties.
Living with lots of people committed to the same sort of ideals means you can share ideas, inspiration and skills – there is always someone who can teach you how to fix the plumbing, or cook a damn fine curry. Co-ops are on the up: from our very own UEA food co-op to the (not so) Co-operative Bank, the idea is relatively prevalent and increasingly important in times of austerity.
Students at the Universities of Edinburgh and Birmingham have set up their very own housing co-ops to create an alternative to the extortionate rents charged by private landlords, and poor conditions in many student properties. Next step: Norwich…

Squatting
Squatters have a terrible name, thanks to publications like the Daily Mail and propaganda espoused by conservative outlets. However, for many people working low-paid jobs, recent graduates, current students, the unemployed and the homeless, squatting is one of few realistic choices. Of course you get a smattering of middle-class political types dedicated to the ‘cause’ but generally, squatting is a housing choice for people with few options. There are more empty homes in the UK than there are homeless people. That is a disgusting statistic.
Developers frequently buy up property and leave it standing empty until market conditions mean they can get top dollar for it – meanwhile the number of homeless households has risen to 50,000, according to homelessness charity Shelter. When people are desperate, squatting becomes an alternative to living in temporary accommodation, hostels, or even on the street.
This may not seem relevant to many students, but with spiralling costs of living, creeping rents, and huge student debt; particularly for postgraduates, squatting is a real alternative to student squalor. Besides, the connotations of squats as horrible, dirty, cold places full of hippies and drug addicts is pretty misplaced – squatters are often more hard-working, dedicated and politically motivated than your average Joe, and if you can deal with the transience and the instability, it can be an interesting way to spend a few months or years.
Living rent-free can be a good alternative to moving back home, and can allow you to save up for a deposit in the ‘traditional’ housing market, or spend time and money doing things other than work, such as building a portfolio, working internships or volunteering.
Unfortunately however, in 2013, the government criminalised squatting in residential properties despite 95% of respondents to its consultation opposing the action, so empty office blocks and commercial buildings are the only properties that can now legally be occupied. This makes the situation more difficult, especially if you’re not experienced with housing law, and the requirement to have at least one person on the premises at any one time makes the exercise somewhat exhausting.

Guardianship
Originally introduced in the Netherlands in the 1990s as a ‘win-win’ market solution to squatting, guardianship essentially means you pay exceedingly low rent to live in, and protect property from potential vandals. This translates into keeping squatters out, pitting desperate people against even more desperate people. Despite the obvious moral challenges this throws up, guardianship can be an affordable alternative to renting, without the potential legal quagmire of squatting.

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About shakkka

Londoner, climate scientist, extremist. All views are my own.

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