Short of cash and need a place to stay? For some residents of Sydney, overwhelmed by the exorbitant cost of paying rent or a mortgage, squatting has been the answer.

Squatting is defined as the unlawful occupation of a vacant building or land. In the last century, there were two key points in Sydney’s history when squatting was all the go. The first was the 1930s, when the financial hardships caused by the Great Depression drove many individuals and families to live in ‘unemployment camps’. These camps were scattered in and around Sydney, including Liverpool, Mosman and the Royal National Park. However, it was the ‘scrubby, sandy, flea infested’ suburbs to the south of Sydney, which saw the greatest concentration of these camps.

Happy Valley at La Perouse during the 1930s Depression
Happy Valley at La Perouse during the 1930s Depression

The most notorious unemployment camp was a shantytown called Happy Valley, which was on Crown Land leased by the NSW Golf Course, near La Perouse. It had up to 300 residents at its peak, and was an experiment in communal living, with local businesses donating food and provisions. When economic conditions improved towards the end of the 1930s, the camp was ended. Nearby unemployment camps included Hill 60 and Frog Hollow, which continued to be occupied until the 1950s. In Depression era, people also lived in the caves at Long Bay, Maroubra and Kurnell.

Although people have tended to squat out of economic necessity, there have been more political motives at hand. This was the case in the early 1970s, when a number of factors converged and Australia’s squatting movement was forged. At this time, there was a flourishing squatting movement in Europe, coupled with a large quantity of unoccupied housing stock in Sydney. This was countered byamendments to the Summary Offices Act, which made squatting (as a form of trespass) a criminal offence.

Some of the most infamous Sydney squats in Sydney were at Victoria Street in Kings Cross, The Rocks and Glebe, which were associated with Green Ban movement. More recently, there have been squats at Broadway and the Grand Midnight Star theatre at Homebush, which highlighted homelessness just before the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Check out Chapter 11 of squatspace handbook for more information on Sydney’s long history of squatting: