LONDON — Like many young Londoners, 25-year-old Rueben Taylor shares a house in a neighborhood that's part scruffy, part smart. Unlike many others, she doesn't pay a penny in rent – and that puts her at the center of an escalating battle pitting the rights of property owners against the needs of tenants squeezed out of Britain's shrinking stock of affordable homes.
Taylor is a squatter, who lives with four others in a brick and stucco 19th-century row house on a street of 600,000 pound ($950,000) homes. The owner is unhappy about the unwanted guests, but they are not committing a crime – something that could change if the British government has its way.
Britain's Conservative-led administration says squatters are an anti-social scourge, and has begun moves to outlaw the practice of living in empty buildings without the owner's permission. It's currently a civil, rather than criminal, offense.
The idea seems to have wide public support, but faces opposition from squatters, housing charities and many legal experts – including one London judge, who has ordered a local authority to release a list of empty buildings to a squatting support group.
"The idea is being created that squatting is one of the biggest social evils facing our society, which is completely insane," said Taylor, sitting amid the bare floorboards and plaster walls of a damp, gutted house that appears to have been abandoned mid-renovation. "We're not advocating the idea that everybody should immediately go out and take over everybody else's houses."
She says this house had been empty for years when the squatters moved in a month ago. They have since reconnected the water and electricity – and pay the bills – and filled the house with scavenged or donated furniture.
According to official records, the house was bought by its current owners – a lawyer, his wife and his stepson – in 2006 and was last occupied, by tenants, in 2007. It was put up for sale a year ago but did not find a buyer.
That is an increasingly common occurrence in Britain's sluggish housing market, which is weighed down by a combination of cash-strapped buyers, banks reluctant to lend and owners unwilling to drop their asking price. It's one of several factors housing groups say is driving up the number of empty buildings at a time of economic hardship and rising rents.
The owner declined to discuss the case but said he intended to get the house back. The squatters say they will move if served with an eviction order, which can be a lengthy process.
Squatting is a well-established, if generally unwelcome, tradition in Britain. While the government does not keep hard numbers, it cites an estimate of 20,000 squatters nationwide. In England and Wales it is a civil rather than a criminal matter, so while squatters can be evicted by the courts, they don't get fines or go to jail.
Justice Minister Crispin Blunt said something needs to be done to lessen the "distress and misery" squatters cause.
"Law-abiding property owners or occupiers who work hard for a living can spend thousands of pounds evicting squatters from their properties, repairing damage and clearing up the debris they have left behind," he said as he asked for public input, the first step toward changing the law.
While many in Britain see squatters as freeloaders, squats can be hives of creativity. Musicians from Joe Strummer to Boy George got their start living rent-free, as did other artists who went on to global fame in the 1980s and 90s.
The public view of squatting has been colored by a wave of recent newspaper horror stories about hapless homeowners being overrun. There was the civil servant who returned from a weekend away to find eight Romanians living in her house, and her possessions in garbage bags outside. There were the sisters who came back from a visit to the Philippines to discover they had been locked out by interlopers.
And there was the doctor who in August found a dozen squatters living in the London house he was about to move into with his pregnant wife.
"It feels like you've been mugged," neurosurgeon Oliver Cockerell said in a Guardian newspaper podcast. "It felt like when I got my car stolen, but 100 times worse."
It took Cockerell two weeks – to get an eviction notice to force the squatters out, and weeks more to clean up the mess of empty beer cans and ruined carpets. He also has to pay for the repairs – though evicted squatters are in theory liable for legal costs and damage, in practice it's often impossible to track them down and force them to pay.
"What the squatters are proposing is anarchy," he said.
Squatters' rights organizations disagree. They say an anti-squatting law could also criminalize student sit-ins or workplace occupations, and point out that it's already a criminal offense to occupy a building someone else lives in or intends to move into. Squatting is legal only in vacant properties that are not someone's home, so the squatters in Cockerell's house were breaking the law.
"These cases are extremely rare but the media are making them seem like they are happening everywhere," said Joseph Blake, a 20-year-old who works with the group Squatters' Action for Secure Homes.
The two views of squatting – social menace versus economic necessity – came to a head in a London court last month, when a judge ordered a local authority, Camden Council, to release a list of all empty homes and buildings in the borough, complying with a freedom of information request from a squatters' advice service.
The council and police argued that releasing the list would bring an increase in squatting, which would in turn bring more noise, vandalism, drug-related crime and arson.
Judge Fiona Henderson agreed that publishing the list "would have a negative impact on the prevention of crime." But she ordered authorities to release it anyway, in part because "there is a strong public interest in bringing empty properties into reuse."
The council still refuses to hand over the list and has launched a legal appeal.
It's not clear whether the government will succeed in criminalizing squatting. The Dutch government did just that last year, sparking violent protests by squatters. The Ministry of Justice says it will publish its formal proposals "in due course."
Housing and homelessness groups say making squatting a crime is a particularly bad idea now, when Britain is facing a growing housing crisis. The deficit-slashing government, which is cutting 80 billion pounds ($130 billion) from public spending by 2015, has reduced welfare benefits and cut support to groups that help the homeless.
Unemployment is rising, and many people struggle to afford private rents, especially in London, where the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is more than 1,300 pounds a month ($2,050) a month.
Squatting advocates say there are as many as 750,000 empty buildings in Britain that could be put to productive use as homes.
"There's a lot of talk about the problem of squatting," Taylor said. "Squatting is not the problem. Squatting is the solution."