A full empty house: Squatting in Melbourne

 

Eric’s Preston home had previously been unoccupied for years. All pictures: Matilda Boseley

By MATILDA BOSELEY

When you look at the front of Eric’s house, there is nothing particularly unusual. The grass is neatly mowed, a cat is bathing in the rare August sun, and the tops of fruit trees peek over the tin roof.

“A lot of people come in and don’t think anything is unusual about the place,” says Eric, who asked for his last name not to be used.

But this house is in fact a protest against Melbourne’s prohibitively expensive rental market.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported in July that there were over a million empty houses across Australia. This “census snapshot” reveals that while property and rental prices have been skyrocketing in Melbourne and Sydney, in the past decade an extra 200,000 properties have been left unoccupied.

“It just seems ridiculous that there are so many empty houses and so many people struggling to pay for rent,” Eric says.  

His solution? An off-the-grid, anarchy-inspired squatting house. 

The living room is decorated with art, quotes and poetry that different occupants of the house have put up.

A few years ago, Eric was trying to find his way. He finished a degree in environmental science, became disillusioned with his work for corporate NGOs, and had been forced to move out of his sister’s garage after neighbours complained.

He needed to find a place to live fast, but rental prices in Preston were steep and he couldn’t shake the frustrating statistics about Melbourne’s empty homes. So, he brushed up on his trespassing laws and found his target. 

“I left a note under the door of my house … My hope was that if the landlord picked it up he would be interested and if not, then at least I would know it was empty,” he says. 

With the note left unread, Eric began squatting.

“The owner came after about three months. We had a few cups of coffee and worked out a deal.”

Eric, along with three or four friends, have now been living in the Preston home for three years. Together they pay $50 a week, around one-ninth of the median weekly rental price for a three-bedroom house in the area. In return, they tend the garden and keep the house in good repair.

The most recent rental report shows that although 2.4 per cent of Melbourne buildings are vacant, only 42 properties on the market are currently affordable to a single person on the Newstart allowance.

The fruit trees in Eric’s yard will be destroyed when the house is demolished.

“I know squatting can be looked down on but I can’t see anything unethical about it. There are so many houses just going to ruin,” Eric said.

The house is off the grid, with solar panels providing “just enough for lights and to charge laptops and phones”. 

The group’s food is largely sourced from dumpster diving or their backyard, which is full of fruit trees and rescue chickens.

“Not having to spend has allowed me to spend a lot more time working in unpaid positions,” he says, eager to chat about the many activist movements he is involved with.

The house is now set to be demolished for development, but Eric has an agreement with his landlord to remain in the house for the next year.

“I love living here, but they are going to build apartments,” Eric says. “I guess I’ll go and look for another empty house to look after.”