Squatting, or the unilateral occupation of at least temporarily vacant property, has been a rite of passage for Britain’s young, down at heel and artistically inclined since at least the psychedelic 1960s. But with evidence that squatter numbers are surging — intruder eviction cases have doubled over the past year in posh London neighborhoods including Knightsbridge and Mayfair — a new law criminalizing the practice came into effect this month that is upending the rebellious and politically charged British subculture.
Armed with legal codes that bound the hands of police and forced landlords into cumbersome civil suits to evict unwanted dwellers, squatters became the bane of the British homeowner. Urban lore tells of families that pop over the English Channel for vacation only to return and find strangers playing house in their home. Vacant, abandoned or second homes are far more classic targets. One squatter in Wales has raised four children over 11 years in a 500-year-old home whose owner died.
Last year, Guy Ritchie, the movie director and Madonna’s ex-husband, fell victim to a rash of squatter takeovers of luxury homes when intruders occupied his $10 million Central London manse as it was undergoing renovation. Under British law, owners and tenants currently living in homes can bring in police if there are obvious signs of forced entry and they can prove they’ve been turned out by invaders. But since his Georgian manor was vacant as workers labored on a renovation, Ritchie had to follow the rules of British Squatter Eviction 101: He had to get a court order before the authorities could touch them.