June 11, 2013 / 5:17 AM / 6 years ago

Anti-squatting: protection for vacant offices

PARIS (Reuters) - The four men occupying the disused food wholesale facility in northern Paris are not just tenants - they’re guards.

Engineer Simon Lavalette and three others - a journalist, an ex-fireman and a construction worker - live in the building, which sits in a row of empty premises waiting for business tenants on the banks of the Seine.

The men face no obligation to defend the building; just being there is enough. In return, they get cheap rent: 200 euros ($260) a month, including power and hot water, and no bureaucratic hassle. Such “anti-squats” have grown fast in the Netherlands since squatting was banned there in 2010, says Hans Pruijt of Erasmus University in Rotterdam, who has studied squatting across Europe.

The amount of new office space taken by companies in Paris in the first quarter fell by 24 percent from 2012, according to property consultant CBRE. Property investors have a more pessimistic view on rentals in France than anywhere in Europe including Greece, according to a survey in April by the London-based Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS).

Across the road from river scenes made famous by 19th-century impressionist painters, Lavalette takes visitors through a car park occupied by five giant containers - put there to prevent anyone forcing the gates and setting up camp.

“Sometimes we play football here,” says the 25-year-old, with a wave towards his second-hand BMW.

The first floor where the men live is freshly painted. Lavalette’s sparse room - double bed, sofa suite, and drinks tray by the window - looks out on the river and skyscrapers of La Defense beyond. The engineer, who moved from Bordeaux in south-west France in January to work with an aerospace company, estimates his rent is just under eight percent of his take-home salary; he would pay 30-40 percent to rent an apartment.

There’s no smoking inside and only three guests each allowed at a time. “It’s a bit of a shame having so much room and not being able to make full use of it, but those are the rules,” Lavalette says with a shrug.

Other drawbacks: the premises have no sound-proofing or insulation. Olivier Berbudeau of Camelot Europe, the group which runs the scheme, says such arrangements don’t suit families. But they can make sense for professionals between 20 and 45.

($1 = 0.7642 euros)

Additional reporting by Tom Bill in London; Edited by Sara Ledwith

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