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Controversial plot to get back at 'unethical' Aussie landlords by finding abandoned homes

Jordan van den Berg said there are too many homes sitting empty at a time when people desperately need somewhere to live.

A rental advocate has called for Australians to dob in landlords with empty houses so those struggling to find somewhere to live could potentially squat in them. Using squatter's rights to live in and eventually acquire a property without having paid a cent for it has almost become a part of real estate urban legend.

It's not a complete fantasy, as one legal expert explained to Yahoo Finance, but it has its risks. Despite this, Jordan van den Berg has launched a campaign to identify abandoned properties across the country.

He told Yahoo Finance he's trying to thwart homeowners who are letting their properties sit idly instead of allowing others to buy them, or setting rent at a reasonable amount so a tenant could move in.

Renting advocate Jordan van den Berg next to a vacant home
Renting advocate Jordan van den Berg said there are too many homes sitting empty at a time where people desperately need somewhere to live. (Source: TikTok)

Do you have a story about squatting? Email stew.perrie@yahooinc.com

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“If a landlord is land banking, just waiting for the value of their property to improve before they sell it, that's unethical. So either just sell your house or let someone rent it out. It's pretty simple," van den Berg said.

A lack of supply is a huge factor in Australia's housing crisis, which has had a trickledown impact on first-home buyers being locked out of the market, and some of the tightest rental vacancy rates on record.

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Van den Berg launched his campaign with a video of a house in his home state of Victoria, where he claimed a landlord increased the rent, forcing a tenant who could not cover it to leave.

He claimed instead of dropping the rent to meet the market, the house has sat abandoned.

There is some movement to punish those hoarding empty houses. The Victorian government will tax owners who keep homes in 16 Melbourne council areas vacant for more than six months from 2025. This includes "unimproved residential land that has been undeveloped for more than five years in established areas of Melbourne".

“The fact that there are thousands of homes sitting empty in our community is just abhorrent,” Greens MP Sam Hibbins said.

“The purpose of this tax is not to collect revenue but actually to push empty homes onto the market for renters and for people who are in need of their first home.”

The most recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics found there are more than one million unoccupied dwellings in the country, but that data was collected on the 2021 Census Night and may not reflect the current state of affairs.

Van den Berg said more needs to be done to address chronic housing issues in Australia.

“Housing is a human right, and people deserve to have a roof over their head,” he said.

“If the government doesn't want to do anything about people land banking residential homes, then we can make them, [because] collective action works,” he told Yahoo Finance.

Property owners revolt over potential squatters swarm

In just a few days, his database has amassed about 250 properties that users have claimed are abandoned. But, he admitted it's difficult to verify which are legitimate or why they are empty.

The non-practicing lawyer, who runs the site 'Shit Rentals' and is known for giving a voice to Australian tenants under his moniker purplepingers, said he is going to visit some in Victoria to see for himself.

He has copped backlash over the campaign, which he has expanded to people living in the United States.

People have demanded intervention from the Australian Federal Police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and even Elon Musk, the owner of X, where van den Berg primarily posts.

“There's a lot of people that don't like what I'm doing,” van den Berg told Yahoo Finance. “So they'll take any opportunity that they can get to jump on what I'm saying. But, at the end of the day, squatting is legal.”

Some of the addresses that van den Berg has verified himself will be posted on social media, but he said they'd be quickly taken down to try and stop authorities or the property owners taking measures to prevent squatters from coming in.

Is squatting legal in Australia?

Van den Berg said squatting is “not necessarily illegal” in Australia and people are allowed to take up residence in an abandoned home if the front door lock doesn’t work.

Property lawyer Monica Rouvellas told Yahoo Finance it's a bit more complicated than that.

Rouvellas said a property has to be “empty, unused and abandoned” before a squatter can move in.

They also have to make a “reasonable” attempt to find the owner and ask if they can squat in the property before doing so.

The Sydney solicitor said just because a lock doesn’t work, doesn’t mean you can just walk in there.

“You still have to be careful [because] the owner does have an implied right to have the property not interfered with,” she told Yahoo Finance.

“So even if the door is unlocked, the fact that someone has entered into that property, that person is now interfering with the owner's right to occupy that land.”

Property lawyer Monica Rouvellas said a door being unlocked isn't a free-pass to squat in a home.
Property lawyer Monica Rouvellas said a door being unlocked isn't a free-pass to squat in a home. ((Supplied/Purplepingers))

While van den Berg took aim at landlords, particularly those in wealthy suburbs who were land banking, Rouvellas said a property could be abandoned for many other reasons.

“Some of the properties that we're seeing, we don't really know the context as to how they got to that particular state,” she said.

The property lawyer said the landlord might not have the funds to repair the property and it’s not fit for lease or they might be overseas looking after a sick loved one and haven’t been able to tend to the home.

Rouvellas warned that an owner is liable if a squatter injures themselves while in the property, so there’s a big issue when it comes to people inhabiting a property without the owner’s knowledge.

Squatters who don’t go through the proper channels before taking up residence somewhere can be hit with criminal and civil charges related to trespassing or theft.

They are required to leave if they are found to be staying in a home and the owner asks them to.

However, there is a legal stipulation called adverse possession, which means a squatter can claim ownership of a property if they have stayed there long enough.

In Queensland, Western Australia and New South Wales, that period is 12 years, while in Victoria and South Australia, it’s 15 years. In South Australia it’s illegal to squat, but squatters can still apply for ownership if they prove they’ve lived there for the requisite time.

A Sydney property developer who took a deceased estate from a family by squatting in the $1.7 million home won a Supreme Court appeal to keep the house in 2019.

Bill Gertos won ownership rights under adverse possession laws, despite a challenge from the relatives of the last listed owner, and later sold the property for $`1.4 million.