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Interview With A Squatter: Atom Tom

Lindsey
By Lindsey Last edited 101 months ago
Interview With A Squatter: Atom Tom

atomtomsquat.jpg
Atom Tom's front door and front room.

If you're looking for somewhere to live, a squat may not be top of your des res list. Yet Mayfair and Park Lane squats have brought squatting into the news Daily Mail recently. Unconvinced that all squatters are "hippies, activists, freeloaders and stragglers" we talked to someone who knows. Atom Tom is a wordsmith, poet and events organiser, who for the last five months has been squatting for a second time, this time in east London. The challenge of renovating his home, dealing with police and sometimes living without electricity he says are days far more satisfying than his days of paying rent.

Why do you you squat?

I do it because rents are outrageous in London. I believe housing should be affordable for all and I have paid rent in the past, but it makes no sense that rent should take up half, even two-thirds of your income. The only person who benefits in this set-up is the landlord, it's not an equal relationship. To be a slave to somebody who only cares about their own greed, no thanks.

Who squats, in your experience?

Everyone and anyone can squat. It's not exclusive in the way paying rent is.

Is it as squalid as people always think?

It annoys me that people think that, that they can't imagine fantastic homes can be made out of squatting. A squat is what you make of it, like anything else. As far as I'm aware, I live in a three-bed apartment, with a balcony, that has been passionately restored from scratch and there's nothing squalid about it.

What's your biggest squatting achievement?

Restoring the electricity (which we pay for legally) and running water from scratch, rebuilding the toilet, salvaging furniture, skipping - and we did it all ourselves! The flat was cold, dark and bare when we arrived and whilst it was a lot of hard work, it has been immensely satisfying. Squatting reminds you of the DIY ingenuity you possess if you only put your mind to it, and how lazy we have become because we think money will solve everything.

Take us through the legal position - someone must own the property, how come you're not kicked out right away?

Simply put, squatting is legal in England and Wales. It's unlawful, but it's not criminal. Owners need to go through the civil courts to remove squatters, because it is a civil matter, not a criminal one (unless you cause criminal damage that is). We've been lucky, in that the owners of where we squat are a local council and for whatever reasons, they haven't issued us with any papers or kicked up. It is useful to know your rights almost immediately though, so you can be cool and calm when confronted in various situations.

How did your squat come to be available?

Our squat exists because the estate we live on was due for redevelopment a decade ago, but the local council screwed up by squandering all the money they were given to do so. Money given to them by New Labour, who were heralding the proposed redevelopment as "the model of modern social housing"! Although we don't live in Hackney, our estate falls into the development zone of the 2012 Olympics, and so the council are now using this to restart their plans, by relocating residents and boarding up flats. There are rumours that demolition of some council blocks here will begin in the Spring, but we're not holding our breath.

What do you fear most, as a squatter?

Having the police or council break in when we're not at the squat and smash up our belongings, it's illegal for sure but they don't care. That's why staying in, as it's called, is crucial to the life of a squat. A housemate needs to be indoors between 9-5 Monday to Friday to watch over the squat. We've been alright so far, fingers crossed.

What is your dream squat?

One that's part library, part observatory, part temple. With a garden.

Have you visited the Temporary School of Thought?

Yeah. The School is doing good for us 'fluffy squatters', that not all squatters are junkies or dirty layabouts, and that squatting is about resourcefulness. I love it that the press are reacting with such shock and amazement!

How are relations with the neighbours?

We get on really well with the neighbours. They're mostly residents who rent from the council, some of the flats are sublet, they see us as regular people like them. I've met people who admire what we're doing, who have even said so.

What are the five tools every squatter needs?

To know the law regarding squatter's rights so you're prepared. The ability to get your hands dirty with DIY. Tools. A cool head and an open mind - you need to work hard to make a squat work, but the pay-off can be hugely rewarding if you do. A sense of humour.

What is the optimum number of people to share a squat with?

In my experience, between 4 and 9 people is reasonable. It's just enough to share the responsibility of staying in and small enough that we're not sleeping on top of each other.

Have you ever squatted/been sick on the Tube?

Haha! You know, my housemates often discuss whether "squatting" is the right word to describe what we're doing. We see it more as part salvaging, part caretaking. It's not like we're hovering over a toilet or anything!

Find out more at Squat Potato.

Last Updated 29 January 2009

Dave

Nice interview. It's good to see those stereotypes that all squatters are lazy squalid junkies challenged.

However, this interview itself does contain at least one implied stereotype, namely that all landlords charge outrageous rents out of pure greed. This is often not the case, and is quite a lazy stereotype in its own right.

I for one am a landlord (techniclly speaking) - I rent out a flat that I own, and until recently used to live in, in East London. The rent that I charge (which is in-line with other rents for similar properties in the area) doesn't even cover my mortgage repayments (let alone monthly leasehold service charges and other rental expenses). To spell it out, I am making a significant loss out of renting out the property. So where's the greed there?

I got into this situation not through an intent to make money out of my tenants, but because I wanted to move to another part of London and was unable to sell due to the current state of the property market. Renting my old flat out (at a loss) was the only option that allowed me to move.

Sure, rents in London are very high. And sure, there will be many landlords whose business is to make profits out of their tenants. And there are bound to be *some* landlords out there who are motivated by greed. But then again, there are probably *some* squatters out there who are "layabout junkies". But generalising that either group is representative of the whole is pretty unhelpful.

On a separate note, it's outrageous to hear about police or council workers breaking in and vandalising belongings. Bearing in mind that's clearly illegal, is there any effective legal recourse if that sort of thing happens? Or do the courts turn a blind eye?

Atom Tom

Thanks, Dave, for pointing out that not all landlords are the same, in the same way squatters are not all the same. My bad for the generalisation. It was interesting to read your take on things.

I don't know if a court will turn a blind eye, but it is more cost effective for an owner to find a way to bypass the courts in turfing out squatters. They see us as illegal, after all, nothing but a blight. In my experience, if you're not indoors at your squat and they turn up on your doorstep, that's the end of your squat.

In their eyes, there's no distinction between the 'fluffy squatter' and the junkie squatter. Same view goes for the police and council people I've encountered.

eas_e

I very much enjoyed this interview and have learned some things I didn't know. I've seen great squats, hellholes and squats that revitalised moribund neighbourhoods. I'm open minded to squatters who are good neighbours just as I am to any other good neighbour. I too am a landlord in a similar situation as Dave's and have been in a loss-making letting situation for 3 years now. I hope that in the next conversation where landlords come up, Atom Tom, you let others know that not all landlords are greedy pigs. Rest assured that squatters will not be maligned in my conversations. Good luck to you.