FEATURE ARTICLE FOR VICE AUSTRALIA.
“Once upon a time there was a haven for artists, freaks, punks, pagans, renegades and junkies,” legendary Sydney artist and seasoned squatter Toby Zoates writes on his blog.
“It looked like a forbidding fortress: a dark cubist castle clinging to some old disused wharves and, as in much urban myth, fairies, elves, ghouls and witches were attracted to it as a perfect hide-out.”
He is describing The Gunnery – a Navy-owned warehouse adjacent to the Woolloomooloo wharves that was commandeered by misfits in the late 80s. Behind its sombre brick exterior, artist-occupiers gathered for grunge shows, raves, performance art displays and women-only cabaret, enjoying the creative freedom that comes with unregulated space.
The dream came to an end when the squatters were cleared out to make way for millionaire apartments (including Russell Crowe’s Sydney pad) and a sanitised, government-run arts centre. The Gunnery was part of an anarcho-activist squatting movement that swept through these unceded sovereign lands in the 70s and 80s. This was a time before the advent of TikTok aesthetics, oat milk and Woolworths Metro, when subcultures lasted more than one season and it was still possible to find cheap rentals that weren’t riddled with mould.
A law unto themselves, Sydney’s early squatting collectives sought to merge the urgent need for safe housing with utopian visions of life in the city. They pitted community and culture against capital, a battle that feels more relevant than ever in today’s housing climate.
In the inner-city suburb of Glebe, feminist activists set up the country’s first women’s refuge in a pair of abandoned cottages. On Victoria Street in Kings Cross, residents, unionists, and squatters joined forces to defend low-income housing from developers and their hired goons. A little further up the hill, at the Darlinghurst Squats, Toby Zoates graffitied “darling it hurtz” above darkly comical cartoon depictions of life in the Cross. The highway in the mural’s background was painted to protest the Eastern Distributor – it eventually came through and flattened the squats anyway.
Squatters and academics told VICE that police crackdowns have stamped out this type of organised squatting in Sydney.
“It doesn’t seem people occupy spaces for social or political reasons at this time, that I can see, or take up residency in buildings for cafes or art spaces,” artist and squatter Mark* tells VICE. Mark currently lives in a squat and is always on the lookout for creative ways to use vacant space in the city.
Jack*, another experienced squatter, shares similar views. Jack has been squatting on-and-off since he left home at the age of 15. Now 30, he’s spent half his life in squats.
“I wouldn’t really call it a community that I was involved in,” Jack* says. “It was a group of people, but we weren’t so organised or pushing a political agenda. But that does exist within the squatting community – there’s anarcho-punk people who are making a statement by squatting.”
Today’s squatting community is fragmented and diverse. Jack has crossed paths with punks, graffiti writers, drug users and foreigners over the years. Mark also believes “squatting is not confined to any particular group or type of person”. Instead, “it comes down to circumstance, happenstance, interest and willingness to take a risk”.
People’s reasons for squatting vary widely, Mark says, “from normal, middle-aged, white-collar people trying their luck, to transient people who stumble upon an open, vacant building and set up”.
A squatting manual published in 1984 estimated that there were around 500 squatters in Sydney. Today, there are no official figures to go off. But with 164,624 empty homes in the city and a 5-10 year waiting list for social housing, it’s safe to assume that many still turn to squatting.
“So many of those early squats were about appropriate service delivery – we need services that are fit for us and we’re the people who best know what that is,” Louise Crabtree-Hayes, housing researcher and Associate Professor at Western Sydney University’s Institute of Society and Culture, explains.
And there’s no relief to be found in the private rental market, where higher income earners and the AirBnb effect are driving up prices.
Professor Crabtree-Hayes has dedicated her career to researching cooperative and community-led housing solutions. Rather than criminalising squatters, she believes we can learn from their inventive use of discarded buildings.
“Holding a space open to think differently about how the city is occupied and inhabited is important, generally, for us as a society,” she says. “There’s also a lot of vacant and dispossessed property that would benefit from actually having people in it.”
The squatters of yore formed housing cooperatives to carry out repairs and provide crucial community services. In the early 2000s, the group behind the Broadway Squats successfully campaigned for a caretaker lease of empty council-owned buildings earmarked for demolition. They spruced up the place with a dumpster dived kitchen serving free food and an art gallery called SquatSpace.
Artist and activist Peter Strong, a key figure in Sydney’s 90s underground protest/party scene, recalls the Broadway Squats fondly. “That really was a great, great place,” he says. “I was in a group called Ohms Not Bombs and we had this huge warehouse at the back; we had a whole bus parked in there one time.”
After the Broadway Squats folded, Peter followed mates to the Midnight Star in Homebush. A “lavish” venue with “chandeliers and everything”. The abandoned 1920s movie theatre was transformed into a social centre that hosted gigs and threw potluck dinner parties. Peter remembers putting on some amazing events in the space before “police moved in and kicked everyone out”.
“To this day it’s just boarded up; it’s still there, empty,” he laments.
Aside from crippling private rental prices and lack of access to social housing, finding a better use for dead space is one of the main reasons people choose to squat.
“You’re cruising around and there’s vacant houses and you’re like ‘well, someone should live there’,” Jack says. Raised by a nomadic filmmaker father, he jokes he was “born into this life”.
It was the allure of a “pretty free life”, coupled with necessity, that originally drew Jack to squatting. And while the risk and instability can be mentally taxing, it’s given him a sense of self-sufficiency that few ever experience.
And it’s this type of autonomy that gets lost when people are treated as just another name on the social housing waiting list. There are over 163,000 people in the queue for affordable housing in Australia and 40 per cent of low-income households are facing rental stress. Associate Director of the City Futures Research Centre at UNSW, Hal Pawson, told VICE the siloed nature of government decision-making is partly to blame for the affordability crisis.
“Housing is a topic which is not usually looked at in a sufficiently comprehensive way. The reason why so many housing initiatives appear to be not very successful is often because they’re much too cherry-picked,” he says.
Following the state election, his research team is calling on the government to implement five key policy reforms including greater investment in social housing and mandatory developer contributions to affordable housing.
While there is an urgent need for secure, affordable housing, especially for the huge proportion of homeless people fleeing domestic violence, squatting can provide a solution for the opportunistic, brave, or just plain lucky.
Taking up residence in unoccupied space creates a glitch in the matrix. It forces people to question why our city values private home ownership above the safety and wellbeing of the people who live here.
As Professor Crabtree-Hayes puts it, squatting is “operating inbetween shelter and the absolute urgent need for shelter, and the bigger broader question around ‘why are people even homeless in the first place?’”
*Names have been changed to protect identity.
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