Why do squatters get to stay so long in university property?

Melbourne readers will probably have heard of a long-running occupation by squatters of Melbourne University-owned terrace houses in Carlton (disclosure: some of my colleagues have been involved in this issue, but I have not). The squatters call themselves the Student Housing Action Collective, and have rested their case for staying partly on the ‘homelessness’ caused by a very tight inner Melbourne rental market.

What’s interesting about this case, I think, are the assumptions it reveals about the relationship between universities and their students. Legally, this looks like a straightforward trespass case. Many of us would like to live in a Faraday St terrace house, but none of us have the right to do so without the landlord’s permission, and we would quickly be thrown out if we tried to move in. But in this case, the squatting has dragged on for many months.

Every party to this dispute has been acting as if the normal rules do not apply. The squatter-activists (the squativists?) correctly judged that the University would not just throw them out. The University has been negotiating with the squatters despite its strong legal case against them. The media has been reporting the story as if the squatters have a case for staying.

In an Age op-ed this morning, housing lawyer Chris Povey put his finger on the underlying assumption:

James Field of SHAC … claimed that the premises had been abandoned for three years and said that the university had moral responsibility to assist homeless students.

The notion of the University of Melbourne’s “moral responsibility” merits further consideration. As a pre-eminent institution that is in the business of educating Australia’s young people, the University of Melbourne also has an obligation to safeguard the welfare of its students.

What this is picking up on, I think, is some residual notion of the university as a community with obligations beyond the strictly educational. This idea is strongest in the United States, where there is a belief that universities should be shaping character as well as adding credentials. In the US, living on campus is the norm especially in the early years of study, creating the physical aspect of community.

By contrast, while there is some residential accommodation at most Australian universities, they have long been principally degree factories serving commuter students. Far from shaping their students’ characters, Australian academics struggle to even remember their students’ names.

In purely practical terms, universities barely have the resources to educate their students properly, let alone deal with their other needs. But they persist with the idea of a broader responsibility in their claims, for example, that they need compulsory amenities fees to pay for services like childcare and counselling. Childless and mentally healthy students should pay for these needs of other members of their university ‘community’. It is these notions that the squatters are at least implicitly drawing on to press their case.

Personally, I’m inclined to Stanley Fish’s view that universities should focus on their academic mission, and that if university staff want to save the world they should do so on their own time (and with their own money). But the alternative view is strong enough that though the Faraday St squatters will eventually go, similar cases will occur in future.

Update 14/1: The law finally prevails.

18 Responses to “Why do squatters get to stay so long in university property?

  • 1
    charles
    January 12th, 2009 21:32

    I wonder if such debates shouldn’t be left to the philosophy department, definitely not the economics department with their very narrow view of humanity, and the education department; their theoretical foundation to take a position is?

  • 2
    Andrew Norton
    January 13th, 2009 06:12

    But of course there is one key economic point that is relevant: every dollar spent on housing is a dollar not spent on something else. So the philosophers would need to explain why spending on housing is more important than, say, spending on the philosophy department.

  • 3
    conrad
    January 13th, 2009 06:32

    I agree that it appears to be a case of trespassing (and I wonder why students feel entitled to live in the inner city — surely anywhere remotely close to public transport would do, and perhaps not even that). However, I’m surprised that Melbourne ever had unused buildings that people could squat in — thanks to the crazy level of expansion without extra infrastructure of the last decade or so, everywhere else I know has quite the opposite problem, and just getting a building for teaching is usually a problem.

  • 4
    Andrew Norton
    January 13th, 2009 06:36

    I’m not sure why the buildings have been unused, though maybe old houses are difficult to convert, or too expensive to convert, to whatever building needs the university has had over that time.

  • 5
    Sinclair Davidson
    January 13th, 2009 07:11

    It is possible to reconcile these two position via the price system totally by-passing the legal system. Charge the students a rental fee consistent with living in a Faraday Street terrace.* (Despite living in Melbourne for 15 years I don’t know the street, but gather that it is somewhat posh :) ) That why the students don’t trespass, they have housing and the university earns income, thereby becoming less of a burden on society. The only losers are newspapers.

    * whether there should be a doscount (because the houses are run down) or a premium (because run down houses are chic could be negotiated).

  • 6
    Mark
    January 13th, 2009 08:02

    Ironically (given Andrew’s comments) a couple of the houses used to be the offices of the University’s counselling service! They were vacated when work on the student housing development behind them commenced. In hindsight they could have been part of the student housing development – they would have definitely attracted a premium rent once refurbished.

  • 7
    Spiros
    January 13th, 2009 08:46

    The University of Melbourne describes itself as “a public-spirited institution that makes distinctive contributions to society”.

    While this could mean just about anything, it certainly means that the university’s non-educational objectives are more than residual.

    The university should either tone down the rhetoric in its strategy statements or act on it, and that means taking student welfare seriously.

  • 8
    conrad
    January 13th, 2009 10:33

    “The university should either tone down the rhetoric in its strategy statements or act on it”
    .
    Spiros, as you point it, this means anything, so I’m sure they’re acting on anything in some way or other. Actually, the MU one is not too bad — where I work, the hyperbole (“missions”) document is so crazy, the Hollowmen use it as a prop.

  • 9
    Fitzroyalty
    January 13th, 2009 10:39

    No one party in this dispute is entirely right or wrong. It does seem that bureaucratic inertia on the part of the university allows it to be a residential landlord that manages its properties very inefficiently when there is money to be made from willing tenants seeking inner city homes. The students have filled the void and increased the efficiency of the housing system through their own initiaitive. If the university makes such inefficient use of its property perhaps it should lease the buildings to a third party who can make more efficient use of them.

  • 10
    charles
    January 13th, 2009 14:25

    To be honest Andrew, the only person with a degree in philosophy that I have talked to at length was driving a bus. I think you would call him under employed. If you have a day to waste in a big city going for a loop on a bus can be very interesting.

  • 11
    Rajat Sood
    January 13th, 2009 16:58

    It is difficult to say that squatting in this case has “increased the efficiency of the housing system”. An increase in efficiency requires that the landlord willingly allows someone to use its property. Although UM may have been willing to let out the properties (assuming the only reason it did not do so was incompetence), it is far from clear that it would have been willing to do so for nil rent. Just because the premises were not being actively used does not mean that their opportunity cost to the landlord is zero. I could have a family of refugees camping out on my front lawn except that not having them is worth more to me.

  • 12
    Fitzroyalty
    January 14th, 2009 08:40

    It has been widely reported lately that there are acute housing shortages in some urban areas. The market is inefficient at providing optimal housing for all citizens because it is not necessarily profitiable. People cannot be reduced to economic units. If property owners use their assets so inefficiently they do not deserve to control them and the people will revolt, as we have just seen. The university’s greed in wasting its property assets and not using them efficiently for their intended purpose (housing people first, makingprofit second) has been a public relations nightmare for it. This could have so easily been handled better if they only learned to think like people and not like lawyers and accountants. Universities are about knowledge and in this case they have acted with fundamental ignorance about genuine human needs.

  • 13
    Andrew Norton
    January 14th, 2009 08:56

    Mark notes that the terrace houses were vacated due to a major construction project immediately behind them, which did create several hundred additional student apartments. So overall the net effect has been a significant expansion in student accommodation.

    Apparently they need renovation before re-use (indeed, I understand there is a council order that they not be used before renovation). I’m not sure why there has been a delay, but universities (like any organisation) need to prioritise their capital works.

  • 14
    Krystian
    January 16th, 2009 19:09

    These students complain about “a very tight inner Melbourne rental market” – Well why don’t they just live further out and take public transport? You don’t HAVE to live in Carlton or inner Melbourne in order to be a student. If they want to see a tight and expensive property market (even in a downturn) they should come to London, and they should also stop complaining and just move further out.

  • 15
    John Surname
    January 16th, 2009 21:43

    There is NO reason they can’t live a bit further out. None at all. IMO this is based nothing more on some kids with a sense of entitlement who think it’s their right to live a hip student lifestyle. But students can’t afford lifestyles, just lives.

    I’m glad they were kicked out. They were breaking the law. It’s not the universities responsibility to pay for their housing because they want to booze it up in the inner city.

  • 16
    Krystian
    January 17th, 2009 07:07

    “this is based nothing more on some kids with a sense of entitlement who think it’s their right to live a hip student lifestyle” – Well said. Universities don’t have an obligation to provide hip inner city accomodation for students, they have an obligation to educate them. I’m sure there is accomodation available if those students squatting are prepared to spend 30 minutes on the train/tram/bus going to and from university.

  • 17
    John Surname
    January 17th, 2009 11:17

    That’s what I do. I live in a cheap place in an unfashionable suburb 30 minutes from Uni. There aren’t any good cafes, pubs, or clubs nearby. I earn, on average, the same amount a student would get on Aus Study or Youth Allowance, but I manage to get by.

    Throughout this entire saga, I’ve yet to note a single good reason for what they’re doing. It’s like one of them found some empty houses owned by the Uni, decided to squat, and then attached a “cause” to it in the hope that everyone would jump on their side and they’d be allowed to stay. It’s like robbing a bank, and then retrospectively claiming you did so to protest against bank policies, and asking to keep the money stolen.

  • 18
    Melbourne Accommodation
    February 1st, 2009 11:32

    I can only say that went from secondary school to work, saved for 4 years to afford to go to uni full time and whilst at uni held down 3 part time jobs to pay for it all… accommdoation included. There are no ‘free rides’ in life (unless you travel by train on a 40 degree day and only half the service is running) and nor should there be… these squatters need to take responsibility for themselves… if they can’t afford it… get a job!