Squatting on Europe's urban frontier

In some respects, it is like the Wild West; rampant land speculation, rival claimants, occassional shoot-outs, and ad hoc juridical formulations. The unlikely location for these events is the cities of Western Europe which have areas in their midst which may rightfully be termed the urban frontier. The occupants of these zones are squatters -- illegal inhabitants of derelict buildings. They are common throughout Europe, though London and Amsterdam with an estimated 30,000 squatters each are the leading territories.

The causes of squatting reflect the growing housing crisis in Western Europe. The end of suburban development in the early 1970s combined with a growing realization of the value of inner city residential property touched off a real estate boom in urban Europe. Down-at-the-heels neighborhoods such as Islington in London transformed into affluent districts virtually overnight.

In Amsterdam the destruction of courtyard buildings, and official encouragement (in terms of funding and tax benefits) for renovation, spurred inner city speculation. It became profitable merely to hold buildings vacant, some for as long as two years, to await the propitious moment to sell. Buildings came to be valued as speculative commodities like stocks or bonds, rather than as potential places to live.

The tightening housing market at the same time fueled the speculative fever and made it more galling to those who were unable to locate accomodations within central city districts. These were primarily young people -- singles and couples, frequently students or marginally-employed -- who could not afford the skyrocketing rents even if they could find a flat. Local authorities exacerbated the situation by allowing hundreds of empty units to deteriorate awaiting demolition that never came as funds for urban renewal projects dried up. Faced with an impossible housing situation and numerous empty structures, the growing population of homeless youth began to occupy the vacant units.

The situation has provided local officials with a dilemma. On the one hand, such occupation contradicts the basic tenets of private property and could ultimately threaten the foundation of the urban rental market; on the other, squatting provides housing for a group of people -- in London 90 percent of all squatters are under 35 years of age and two-thirds of those are single -- government could not possibly accommodate in present financial conditions. In addition, the squatters perform basic maintenance functions on buildings from which the city was not receiving revenues.

London officials have gone so far as to legitimize the squatters in government-owned buildings. Squatting organizations have formed and contracts signed with "no rent" guarantees, provided the squatters maintain the property and pay for the utilities. The government, of course, retains the right to sell or demolish the building with proper notice.

While the squatting situation in city-owned properties is becoming regularized, it is quite another matter with respect to privately-owned structures, especially those being held for speculation. Twice during the early months of 1980, armies of police, supported by tanks, rousted young squatters from such buildings in central Amsterdam. In 1977 similar police force was employed against squatters in Stockholm buildings scheduled for demolition.

Squatting is obviously a symptom of a deeper housing malaise afflicting urban Europe. By taking the law into their own hands, in effect, the squatters are fulfilling, however inadequately, the housing needs that neither the private nor public sectors are meeting. Extra-legal solutions as those devised by London officials are only temporary palliatives. The growing militancy of the squatting population, the unabated speculative housing spiral and consequent removal of units from an already-tight housing market, and the occurrence of violence suggest the potential for more open conflict on the urban frontier.

In the Old West it was frequently the equitable solutions of the sheriff and the pioneer families that fashioned order our of chaos on civilization's periphery. It is evident that similar government-citizen cooperation is necessary to introduce equity into a housing market that has become a free-for-all.

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