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.
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…
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.
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.
This was prompted by an invitation to speak at an event debating the relative merits of voting, or not, inspired by the Russell Brand/Paxo interview. It’s rough, but mostly encapsulates what I’m thinking about the whole thing at the moment.
Voting is one of the most fundamental civil rights we have in society – it is supposedly one of the most significant methods of expressing our opinion as citizens, and exercising our power. However, election turnouts are dwindling, perhaps showing the widespread mistrust of politicians and apathy in the electorate, which begs the question; is it worth voting at all?
In my mind, we have one of 3 options:
- Vote, and choose the best (or least bad) candidate for the job. Collude with the system, affirm it, and contribute only to change from within the system, and nothing to radical change.
- Don’t vote, and void any opinions or ideas you might have about party politics, because you did nothing to change the system itself.
- Spoil your ballot, register your disgust with the system as a whole, and state your determination to change things for the better, and create an alternative outside of party politics.
I will opt for the third option on every occasion, a hundred times over. I respect people who vote, and those who don’t, as long as they can provide reasoning. If you think candidate x will genuinely change things, I can think you’re misguided, but ultimately I will respect that opinion and the fact that you voted. If you are simply voting for someone that you hate because they are the least worst option, I might suggest you think about engaging in politics outside of the ‘legitimate democratic process’, i.e. get involved in union organising, or direct action, or some kind of political movement. Voting tactically makes sense locally – where I’m from in North London, the local Labour MP, Jeremy Corbyn, is a pretty radical bloke, and has achieved a lot of really cool things in the time he’s been elected (some 30 years). In that area, voting Labour makes sense locally, even if it may not make sense nationally – it depends on how you value the trade-offs between local and national politics.
If you don’t vote and don’t engage in politics on any level, I think that in short; you’re an idiot. You have no valid claims to make about politics and you certainly can’t complain about things if you have made zero effort to change things at all. It reminds me of an advertising campaign run during the early noughties elections. If you think everything is absolutely perfect as-is, fair enough, but I doubt you will find a soul who changes their mind about perfection as quickly as the government changes colours. People who engage in politics outside of the party-political pseudo-democratic sphere I can understand – I know a lot of people from the London Left (Dirty Commies and Filthy Reds), who I am most familiar with, having grown up there – opt for this. This is the point of contention for me, and something I have an internal dilemma about. If you actively try to remove the corrupt system that is in place (AKA Smash the State/Crush Capitalism/etc.) and in its place create something better (Transition Towns/Co-operatives/Community Centres/etc.), yet choose not to vote, I can accept your utter rejection of the state in all its forms. It’s a bit purist, but I get it.
My justification for spoiling my ballot is that I am doing the best of both; pursuing a multi-pronged attack. I am a) registering my discontent/disconsolateness/disgust/repulsion (delete as appropriate) with the political system in its own terms whilst b) actively trying to remove it from outside and create a better alternative in its place. I respect those who don’t vote, yet strive to create something better outside of the framework of our so-called ‘democracy’. However, those who seek to cultivate the impression of being left field, living the ‘anarcho’ lifestyle, are just as bad as anyone else who doesn’t vote and doesn’t engage. Narcs who do pretty much nothing but go to demos to bait cops and drink special brew are just as bad as any tabloid-regurgitating square.
Ultimately the argument of ‘the suffragettes fought and died for your right to vote’ will come up – I think it is one’s own decision whether or not to exercise that right to vote, and that whatever you decide is valid, as long as you can justify the choice. Engaging with politics on any level, whether its student politics, attending national marches against unjust wars, listening to debates in Parliament, writing letters to MPs, chaining yourself to banks or being a keyboard warrior over the internet (as long as it’s reasoned) is all legitimate – and if you do something on any shade of the spectrum, you have a basis for not voting. It’s only if you refuse to engage in politics entirely – whether its with a big P or a little p – that you should be condemned.
Politics is relevant to everyone and everything, yet party politics is such a turn-off. It would help if people were more educated on the alternatives. Doing things and changing things for the better can be so exciting, and could change the way we do things as a society, if only we taught it in schools. I would still encourage people to choose option 3 because it challenges the status quo from within and without, but it only works if you are involved. That’s the crux of the matter – more people need to get engaged, get angry, and get involved.