Squatting and Vacancy


On Wednesday, a number of people who had been living in a derelict building at 23 Prussia Street in Dublin were forcibly removed. In a manner eerily similar to previous evictions carried out by private security operators, such as Berkeley Road in August 2020, much destruction was caused.  Utility appliances were upended. Toilets and sinks were smashed. Holes were made in the roof. Windows were put out. Used engine oil (a carcinogenic substance) was doused over bedding and communal spaces. If intimidation was the strategy, the ultimate goal was to render the buildings uninhabitable for residents.

Use of public resources for private evictions

While gardaí were not in attendance when the eviction began before 7am, they were present at a later stage. Avoiding the language of ‘eviction’, Gardaí stated that they attended because the owner, supported by a court order, was “securing a premises and facilitating access to persons to remove personal items.” As the eviction proceeded, Gardaí managed the protest occurring in solidarity with the residents. While the protest remained small, around 40 people, a Garda helicopter was inexplicably dispatched. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties queried such deployment of resources for a civil matter and noted this emerging pattern of public resources used for private evictions. Members of the  force have expressed unease with involvement.

Squatters’ Activist Group

People have been squatting at 23 Prussia Street for a number of years since it was last used as formal housing. For all intents and purposes, it is another derelict site in a city strewn with derelict sites. The current occupants are a housing activist group, That Social Centre, who have been there since September 18th of this year. An accompanying announcement from the time stated that they intended to “clean up, build infrastructure, host events and workshops, and resist any further eviction attempts.”

Communal squats tend to not last long in Ireland before owners re-assert their property rights. Recent examples include the Barricade Inn and Grangegorman squats. Surviving for over a year between 2015 and 2016, and based in a vacant hotel on Parnell Street, Barricade Inn contained a vegan café, music space for gigs, arts-and-craft room and shared communal space. Grangegorman regularly held poetry nights and open days for people to help with their urban garden. Squats provided space for people to inhabit outside of the current property system with extortionate rents but also to be creative and be embedded in the local community.

What does squatting reveal to us?

The place of squatting within the history of housing is far more significant and complex than is often acknowledged, particularly when considered globally with the flows of human migration to urban centres. Squatting is simply the ‘living in – or using otherwise – a dwelling without the consent of the owner,’ with the intention of long-term usage of the buildings or land (typically more than a year). In The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting, Alexander Vasudevan outlines two main social stimuli for squatting. Firstly, the desire to make or explore new social forms, often radical or counter-cultural in nature. Secondly, Vasudevan identifies squatting as the ‘makeshift practices and coping mechanisms’ that have emerged as a result of the absence of the more basic of human needs -affordable and secure housing.

It is necessary to consider what squatting reveals to us about the Irish housing system. While the communal squat at Prussia Street seemed very much in its infancy and may have been exploring new social forms, it is impossible to ignore the backdrop of Ireland’s worsening housing affordability crisis.

Rates of homelessness in the Irish Republic – currently at over 8,000 people – show no signs of decreasing, while the production of empty spaces remains a feature of our housing system. Whether vacant buildings, derelict sites or empty high-end apartments and penthouse suites, many empty spaces exist. Last week, my JCFJ colleague Kevin Hargaden considered the ubiquity of vacant sites in Dublin and how even “the most avid defender of capitalism must recognise that the market is incentivising vacancy.” 

It is understandable that as homelessness persists and housing becomes increasingly unaffordable while many buildings sit empty, then squatting will occur. When people choose to squat in various empty spaces, it reveals most clearly that the State has failed in its role of the equitable allocation of space. Squatters draw attention to the existence of vacant buildings – though their habitation may become short-lived when the owner is alerted— and point out the failures stemming of the rapacious commodification of housing. A famous example occurred in Paris when a demonstrative squat was established in front of the Presidential Palace. Squatting is also a model of urban development and renewal, reinterpreting urban and housing politics. The inhabitants of the Dublin-based squats mentioned earlier – Barricade Inn, Grangegorman, That Social Centre – have all invested time and communal resources in upgrading derelict buildings for habitation and as communal spaces.

Rights of use vs rights of exchange

But at the heart of Wednesday’s eviction is the conflict between the ‘rights of use’ and the ‘rights of exchange.’ Henri Lefebvre helpfully understands the city as a work which is produced by the daily actions and decisions of those who live in it, and asserts that the right to the city is not only a right to both inhabit and be in the city but also to define and shape the city in ways that challenge the oppressive demands of capital accumulation. Mark Purcell, engaging with the Lefebvre’s theorising, suggests that by realising the right to reclaim and shape urban spaces, this will “maximise use value for residents rather than to maximise exchange value for capital.” However, there are no recorded cases of a communal squat being undisturbed for 12 years in Ireland in order to claim ‘squatter’s rights. Yet, many building remain vacant for years with no use value for city inhabitants while the exchange value for the owner or land speculator accrues handsomely until maximal profit can be extracted through sale or development.

Demolition of site for build-to-rent scheme

In the latter half of 2022, all the existing buildings and structures on the Prussia Street site are to be demolished for the construction of 166 Build to Rent apartments by the McGrath Group. If private rents remain on their current trajectory, the apartments will be unaffordable for many and 23 Prussia Street will still have much vacancy.

While some people may choose to form communal squats for various reasons – creative, activist, or departure from social norms – others may have little option in order to meet their basic housing needs. Neither romanticising squatting due to the lack of housing or dismissing squatters as trespassers on private property is helpful.

Instead, we must try to discern what the ubiquity of vacant sites and the violence faced by squatters reveal about our society.