How squatter king set me up in a London flat for pounds 120

Danny Penman gets a place from a man who acts as estate agent to the capital's homeless
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The Independent Online
I FINALLY got the keys to my new squat from Syd the Squatbroker a week ago. He provides a complete service. For pounds 120 he "cracked" the squat, did a detailed survey, made sure the gas, electricity and water were on and secured the flat to keep it safe from other squatters.

So for about a week's rent on the open market, I've got a two- bedroom flat in Hackney, east London, for free, just in time to enjoy the brouhaha over squatters getting legal ownership of their squats in Lambeth, south London, and a row of houses just up the road from here.

I had considered Syd's other options: His "Budget Plan" for pounds 75 was daunting. He'd just give me the address of a squat and I'd do the rest. Knowing my luck I'd get caught with a crowbar and a bag of tools as I climbed through a window. Frankly, a no-no.

His "Yuppie Plan" was too wimpy even for me. Syd would make sure all utilities were on, tidy up, organise furniture and arrange a van to pick up my gear. It wasn't cheap though. Three hundred pounds upfront, plus pounds 40 a month for every month I stayed. Bit steep I thought, especially as I'm squatting for only a few weeks until I move into my own flat.

Syd does earn his money. He carries a set of fireman's keys which give him access to the roofs of almost every tower block in London. Once up, he abseils down to a window, gains entry and opens the squat from the inside. He avoids damage. On tougher squats - those with heavy steel "squat guards" covering doors and windows - he uses oxyacetylene cutting gear. Quick, efficient, but illegal.

In the real world, Syd is an out-of-work actor, a chameleon of sandy- haired medium build. He's one of those characters who can blend with brickwork. People find him by asking around in the right pubs.

As he walks around Hackney he notes every house and flat he passes. If he sees a potential squat, he nips down to the land registry or the council to find out who owns it. If it's private or owned by a property company he forgets it. If it's the local council or a housing association it's a potential squat.

When he's down at the land registry, Syd switches image. He looks every inch the casual solicitor's clerk. Shirt, tie and Chinos. Sometimes he pops on his round spectacles to complete the picture. Once the squat's a runner, he dons his ex-Hackney Council boiler suit and bumbles around with his tool bag. The squat's as good as cracked.

He's done me proud with my flat. It's on the top floor of a modern tower block in the centre of Hackney. Floor to ceiling windows. Sweeping views of St Paul's, the Post Office Tower and Canary Wharf. It's even been redecorated in a bizarre collage of styles from the 1970s. Woodchip wallpaper in the living room. Moon and star patterned wallpaper in the hall, stairs and landing. I have to use a camping stove which limits my cooking. Anyway, as a vegetarian, I am limited to pasta and fruit. Healthy but boring.

Still, I've got a decent hi-fi, telly and what I like to call "minimalist" furniture. It's very comfortable. I wish I could say the same for the lifts. Every time I use them there's rancid urine on the floor. Still, at least I'm not paying to live here.

Smelly lifts notwithstanding, Chez Penman is far better than other properties my squatbroker showed me. For a fleeting moment I considered a five-bedroom Edwardian terraced house on Victoria Park in Hackney. I loved it but it was too big. Even with hot-wired electricity I'd never be able to keep it warm in winter. The neighbours looked a bit dodgy too - one was wearing a tie.

I was quite taken with another squat near the park - a beautiful two- bedroom Victorian garden flat, with period features. Sadly, I was slow off the mark and was gazumped. Syd says this is happening increasingly in Hackney. It's a result of the housing boom: property developers are evicting squatters left, right and centre so everybody is scrabbling for what's available.

This week I got one hell of a shock. I was working on an article when I heard the rattle of keys. Somebody was trying to force keys into my newly-fitted locks. I could hear them becoming increasingly agitated as keys failed to work. I fumbled for my copy of the "Squatters Handbook" to find guidance.

The book informed me that as I'd been in the flat for less than 28 days I could be instantly thrown onto the street. This could be highly embarrassing. Imagine having to tell all my friends and contacts that. "Yeah, I squatted once and I lasted three and a half days." I'd be the laughing stock of the Hackney underground. I had to save face somehow. I needed to stay at least a week or two. So I grabbed the bull by the horns, and opened the door and the steel squatguard protecting it. Innocent charm was in order.

"Can I help you?" I said indignantly. There was a burly woman from the council. "What are you doing?" she said. "This place is supposed to be empty." She didn't look best pleased. "I know," I said sheepishly. "I'm a squatter. Would you like a cup of tea?"