SHAC Student Housing Action Co-operative

Uploaded as part of the Anarchism in Australia project.

Author: Mariscal
Originally Published: 2008
Obtained from: Mutiny Zine, issue 30, 2008. Available at Jura Books.

Student Housing Action Co-operative
by Mariscal

On the evening of Tuesday 19th August twenty students from the University of Melbourne calling themselves Student Housing Action Collective (SHAC) occupied the four terraces marked with the numbers 272-278 in Faraday Street, Carlton. Their proposal was to transform the premises, left idle for the previous three years, into a student-run housing co-operative. A conflict was set up between an autocratic University administration and students with legitimate claims for autonomy.

A careful planning process was carried out in the six weeks leading to the action. The student collective was divided into groups each one with specific responsibilities: media, research and strategy, building works including gardening, safe spaces policy, university liaison, police liaison, etc.Two precedents were particularly relevant from the start. One was the experience of the Student Housing Cooperative (STUCCO) at Sydney University which provided an example of an action that had managed to sustain itself in the long term. Closer to home, there was the experience of the Melbourne University Affordable Student Housing Collective. In 2005 a group of students, some of them currently linked to our project, squatted a government owned property on Keppel St. Carlton. In that occasion the State Government ordered police to evict the occupants within a week.

Central to the initial stages of the Faraday Street occupation was a well-coordinated media strategy. It was built around the vice-chancellor’s statement last July that there were at least 400 Melbourne University students in a state of homelessness. That statement made headlines in mainstream press and gave us a significant if precarious degree of protection. It would be a PR disaster for the university to be perceived as rushing to evict students from hitherto unused property; a disaster that would only compound the bad publicity surrounding the controversial implementation of the “Melbourne Model” reforms. We decided that in contrast to the Keppel St action we had to be open with the media from the word go. As students were walking into Faraday St, press releases were going out to major media outlets followed by calls to radio-stations the following morning. Regardless of whether or not journalists or editors were sympathetic to our action, we needed to be in print so people would know about us. That objective was accomplished and as a consequence the University was put in check and remains in check until now.

In terms of our internal organisation an issue has come to the fore that has the potential to derail our project. The hectic character and relentless multiplication of tasks that we confronted in the first days of the occupation had the effect of making our working groups disappear. Suddenly everybody was doing everything but many things weren’t actually getting done and many others weren’t properly finished. We realised that what was actually happening was that tasks were being concentrated in a core group of people while others were dropping off the SHAC bus or having cups of tea in the back seat. We have had to move quickly to restore our task division and participation is picking up again. It is very interesting to see how the highs and lows in group morale coincide with the highs and lows of group participation.

Since moving in, SHAC has become a little hub of community activity, holding regular open dinners, breakfasts, film screenings and public meetings. Periodical working bees are organised in which everybody’s skills are directed to turning derelict, isolated and bureaucracy-flavoured spaces into an embracing home. We even got tips from some of our friends amongst which we count the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), Union Solidarity, Electrical Trades Union (ETU) and the Carlton branch of the Melbourne Fire Brigade. We also have established relationships with the National Union of Students (NUS), the University of Melbourne Postgraduate Association (UMPA), the University of Melbourne Student Union and La Mama theatre.

The underlying principle of our action confronts head-on the way in which the University usually reduces students’ issues to managerial problems. However, we decided that in our dealings with the university our language would not be confrontational. Strategic reasons aside, we have considered our action so legitimate that there is no reason to alienate in advance any of the parts that might be in some way involved: university, local government, media, etc. The proviso here is that in no case, concessions would be made that could prove detrimental to SHAC’s autonomous character.

This of course sets up one of the biggest challenges for us. How to combine direct action with conciliatory negotiation? This was exemplified by the situation that arose as a product of our official introduction to University Council. For that occasion we had the President of the Postgraduate Association speaking to a report and presentation we prepared beforehand. The immediate objective here was to prevent a sense of crisis from spreading amongst members of Council. We needed to give them a sense that we knew what we were doing, even if they did not agree with it so they would not panic and hit the eviction button. In the end the presentation was quite successful and bought us some time. It felt like a victory. The trouble is it was actually a bureaucratic victory not a real one. Our actual victories can only be political in the sense of achieving support from people who feel directly affected and get involved. On the one hand, dealing with the university might give us a sense that we are being coopted by the system. On the other hand we need to remember that only radicals achieve real reforms.