A history of squatting campaigns in Melbourne – Iain McIntyre

01Jun10

This is the unedited notes from a talk given by Iain at Camp Eureka on Monday, 26th April, 2010.  An edited version appears in Melbourne Black, Vol.1, No.3.

Today I’ll be talking some campaigns from the past, as well as my own experiences around squatting activism, in order to stimulate discussion around squatting as a strategy and the tactics involved.

The Pros and Cons of Squat Campaigns

First and foremost squatting provides a practical solution to housing, although not necessarily a long term or easy one. People are already doing it out of necessity so campaigns, actions, support networks can provide solidarity, share knowledge and raise the profile of direct action.

Squatting exposes the waste and exploitation built into the current system and the failure of state and private market solutions to deal with homelessness and housing stress. If done publicly squatting asserts right to housing for all.

Due to the often run down nature of the properties involved squatters have to learn practical skills around repairs, etc as well as work out how to negotiate with police, neighbours and landlords. Because you’re not paying rent you can also put more time and money into doing what you want to with the space and free yourself up from work, etc.

Lastly as a form of direct action and housing squatting chimes with the creation of a society in which we are self reliant and develop our own solutions to the problems we face.

The down side of squatting is that campaigns and spaces can be hard to maintain. If you’re lucky and find a place that has been forgotten about then you might be able to house yourself or others for some time. However as soon as you go public you put that at risk unless you are able to wedge the owners in the way that SHAC did with the University of  Melbourne and the Broadway Squats did with the South Sydney council.

Generally squatting involves having to keep moving and dealing with the police and landlords in often confrontational situations where you have little warning, few rights and little power. Even if you are able to resist by barricading and getting large numbers involved, living under the threat of eviction is often stressful and time consuming, although it can be exciting and bonding as well. For most activists who have other options it can be difficult to keep at. Those activists, and others, who don’t have alternatives are often quite vulnerable and therefore reluctant to bring any more pressure down on themselves.

In short while squatting provides a radical and practical solution it can be all consuming, hard work and hard to sustain.

1946 Squatting Campaign

Inspired by a major campaign in the UK, where 100s if not 1000s of properties were taken over, the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) initiated a series of squatting actions to address the post war housing shortage. There is no time here to go into pros and cons of the CPA’s strategies after World War 2, but I will focus on this successful campaign.

The activists involved were able to tap into a number of key resources, not least the general ferment around gender and class based issues that was happening in the wake of the war. In doing so they were able to appeal to people’s fears of another depression and the general demand that they be rewarded for wartime sacrifices.

Although Cold War hysteria around Communism was about to begin, the idea that society should provide for the basic needs of all was a prevalent one at the time. Much of this was channelled into state based solutions and the creation of the welfare state, but nevertheless it allowed the squatting campaign to draw on ideas that many people at some level agreed with. Unlike today strong communities also existed and people knew their neighbours. Although this didn’t automatically translate into support for such campaigns it gave them a base from which to draw on.

CPA activists may have been using squatting to primarily advocate for more public housing rather than complete community control, but the idea of seizing unused properties on the basis of need was still a radical one. In this they were aided by Wartime Moratorium Regulations in which people were able to identify empties whose owners could then be compelled to rent them out. At the beginning of the campaign the prosecution of the regulations was weak and inconsistent, but they provided a policy that activists could point to and build on. In doing so they were able to argue that by squatting they were enforcing the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.

Lastly the various squatting actions had a core of organised activists who were willing to occupy properties and guard them for as long as it took. These troublemakers also had an existing support network in the CPA which boosted the neighbourhood committees that were set up.

The campaign probably started in January, but kicked off publicly in May when Returned Service League (RSL) and CPA members (possibly one and the same) seized the “Marranah” mansion in Kings Cross turning it over to a number of families. After a concerted campaign the local council was forced to recognise the occupiers as tenants and begin much needed repairs. In the same month four families with the assistance of the CPA, RSL, the Legion of Ex Servicemen and the Commonwealth Association squatted staff cottages adjoining a factory at St Mary’s after the factory’s manager rejected applications for legal occupation.

Further squats continued to be set up in Sydney and in June the campaign spread to Melbourne where the Box Hill CPA branch transferred a family from a cowshed to a house that had been deserted for three years. In the same month ex-servicemen and their supporters were arrested and heavily fined for wilful trespass after they refused to leave a property in St Kilda. In Hobart 2 families broke in and took possession of rooms in an empty private hospital. Within a month 53 homeless people had moved in including 27 children.

July saw similar actions in Melbourne and Sydney with several public meetings also held. The biggest action saw six families occupy vacant huts in the Royal Marine compound at Moore Park. The families and CPA members scaled a fence enclosing the Cleveland Street compound before police moved in and laid siege for a number of days. Unable to leave for fear of arrest and eviction the families were provided with food and blankets by locals. A campaign against the squatters was begun in the media with attempts made to brand them “communist dupes”, but this failed to break either local support or the squatters’ resolve. By the month’s end victory was achieved when the squatters were finally given the opportunity to buy the huts with finance supplied by the federal government.

Similar actions continued and eventually also spread to Newcastle. By August the CPA claimed to have housed over 130 homeless people in Sydney alone.

Information on how the campaign wrapped up is limited. However it would appear that the squatters embarrassed various authorities into applying the wartime provisions more closely and that this is where the activists’ energy increasingly went. However squatting continued on into 1947 with families squatting a disused tennis pavilion in Williamstown where they converted the changerooms into living spaces.

Squatters Union of Victoria (SUV)

The Squatters Union ran from the early 1980s until the end of the decade. Judging from the Union’s magazine, and the people I’ve met who were involved, it was primarily an anarchist group. Unlike the 1940s campaign the Union’s activities were primarily run by squatters themselves. At times there were only a small core activists involved, many of whom were also unemployed. Although payments were very low the conditions on the dole were far more lenient than they are today and this allowed some of these activists to go at things full time. The Union was also able to draw on a larger pool of squatters as well as people involved in the punk scene and unemployed activism. Many of the core Squatters Union folks were involved in all three.

Other than this potential base of support the Union also had the advantage of there being many more empties available than today, particularly in the inner city and Ministry of Housing and Military Housing areas like Braybrook and Laverton. Early on the SUV often worked with Housing groups and ran joint campaigns publicising the eviction of squatters from disused public housing and council properties. In doing so the Union generated a lot of media interest and established itself as a contact point for people needing solidarity or advice. The Ministry of Housing’s response was to trash empties and put any squatters they evicted to the bottom of the waiting list. Eventually under Jeff Kennett’s reign a portion of housing stock and many government buildings were flogged off.

The Union sometimes physically helped people set up squats and also picketed councils and real estate agents over evictions. It also joined in broader campaigns around gentrification and housing in St Kilda and North Melbourne. It organised its own anti-eviction campaigns in Northcote, Fitzroy and other areas and occasionally took part in physically resisting evictions.

The SUV also served as a media contact to comment on housing and squatting issues and claimed to have done 116 interviews in 1987, the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless, alone. Members of the Union presented a radio show, which eventually merged with the Unemployed Workers one to become SUWA. They also published 18 issues of Squat It! magazine.

The Union’s activities crossed over with mass squats and social spaces such as a warehouse in Wellington St, Collingwood, a squatted café on a pier in Port Melbourne, a squatted Orphanage in South Melbourne and the Community Fire Station in Fitzroy. The latter served as the Union’s headquarters in the late 1980s as well as the home of the Unemployed Workers Union, Koori Press and other groups.

The SUV also ran an advice service. According to some stats published in Squat It! they, along with the Western Region Housing Council, received 485 enquiries from people interested in squatting in 1987 and had 80 reports of empties which allowed them to build a list of 100s of properties. In the same year the Union claimed to have distributed 10 000 leaflets and pasted up 2000 posters. All in all the various people who moved through the organisation over the best part of a decade were a busy bunch. If you’re interested in finding out more about the organisation and its activities you can find copies of Squat It! in the Loophole library and the State Library of Victoria.

1990s Activism

My personal experiences with squatting activism in Melbourne during the 1990s weren’t quite as exciting as the campaigns of the ‘40s or ‘80s. I’ll talk about them mainly to illustrate what people have done in the quiet times and also to discuss the usefulness of large, sustained, public squats- something we didn’t have.  I should emphasize that these are my take on events and that others who were involved may have different opinions.

I moved to Melbourne in 1992 and got involved in the local scene after meeting local squatters at a public talk.  The group I became involved with was originally called the Squatters Information Service or SIS and later became the Squatters Information Network because the acronym was cooler. We were auspiced by a housing lobby group called Shelter Victoria who had a relationship with squatters going back to the SUV days. They provided us with a phone and a listing in the White Pages as well as the use of their office on Friday afternoons.

There was a group of maybe 5-10 people who would do a once a month shift on the phone or hang out and use the photocopier. Around that there was a larger group of people who would call in with the addresses of empty houses which we kept in a file and would then pass onto people who called in. People were meant to call back if the place was being lived in or was a no go, but few ever did. We promoted the group via announcements on Radio 3CR and the SUWA show as well as through stickers and posters. A lot of callers simply looked us up in the phone book under “squatter” because they’d heard of the Squatters Union via its earlier campaigns.

Most of our callers were either mothers with kids who were about to be evicted and needed somewhere pronto or people who had been eyeing off an empty in their area for some time. Most weeks 2 to 5 people would call up and we’d do what we could to help them, which to be honest often wasn’t much. The laws provided no protection unless the police or someone other than the owner was trying to evict them and we weren’t in a position to provide physical solidarity.

Probably the most useful thing we did was to put out about 1000 copies of the 1993 Squatters Handbook. This was circulated through Housing groups and services as well as via various subcultural haunts. On the back of that some of us did talks with various groups. I remember running a workshop in Geelong talking with some homeless kids about their experiences with squatting and strategies for dealing with the police and landlords.

Nearly all of us were squatting. There were still a lot of empties around in the inner city then, probably an average of 1 every couple of streets. Although I had better luck in later years I tended to pick the ones which didn’t last long, but generally if you kept at it you could find one that did.

People were fairly upfront when I got involved that SIN was to be an advice line only although some in the collective did help people break into properties. The only time we planned on doing an action while I was in the group it ended in a near fatal split.

We’d been asked to do something during Housing Week by Shelter and we decided to squat a building in the city to highlight the number of unused properties in Melbourne. Half of the small band who would be potentially involved decided they would only take part if we engaged in all out resistance. I can’t recall the exact reasoning, but I guess it would be a show of militancy. The rest of us had mixed feelings. Objections to a stand up fight included that it would be suicidal and/or stupid for a small group of people to tangle with the police over what was essentially a publicity stunt, that dealing with courts, etc would be a waste of our limited personal and group resources, and that we should wait and see how things panned out on the day. In the end everyone got huffy and nothing came of it.

Following our direct action debacle things with SIN slowly fizzled out. With the election of Kennett many of us got sidetracked into things like the Northlands and Richmond secondary school occupations. Some of us however continued to be involved with the SUWA show, which people still occasionally call for advice to this day. In 2001 SUWA folks put together a mini “No Frills” version of the SIN handbook and managed to get 1-2000 copies out as well as eventually set up a website.

Both SIN and I guess SUWA’s main contribution was in providing practical advice and promoting the idea of squatting to smallish numbers of people. Given the tiny crew who were involved in squatting activism and the diminishing pool of supporters around us that was probably the best we could do.

In the years since I’ve noticed that every time a large and reasonably public space has been squatted the overall interest and number of people squatting has also increased. In the mid 1990s a space was squatted on Wellington St which was dubbed the Brown Warehouse. The same space had been previously squatted as a café back in the 1980s. This time around it housed various people, many of them travelling back and forth from forest protests, and also held gigs and other events. There was also another place down the road called Fabryka which had a café night. Both spaces were evicted after about 3-6 months, but the Brown Warehouse caught a lucky break and the owners took them to court instead of just sending the police around when no one was home. That allowed the occupants time to barricade which stalled the owners for a short while and later saw the police call off a planned eviction. It also got squatting and the campaign to save the space a lot of publicity. I wasn’t particularly involved beyond attending and playing gigs and covering events on SUWA, but it definitely raised the profile of squatting on a grassroots and media level. I guess it’s fairly obvious, but as in the 1940s and 1980s the experience of the Brown Warehouses demonstrates that if you can show that a radical solution works then people will give it a go.

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2 Responses to “A history of squatting campaigns in Melbourne – Iain McIntyre”

  1. Great article, I will be in touch.


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