11 May 2024

Jordan van den Berg: the renters' Robin Hood

From Saturday Morning, 9:05 am on 11 May 2024

Housing advocate Jordan van den Berg received a wave of fury from landlords and real estate agents recently after posting a video suggesting people squat in houses left empty by their owners.

The Melbourne-based lawyer, who posts online under the name Purple Pingers, has been dubbed the 'Robin Hood of renters' for his unorthodox solution to the country's housing crisis.

Van den Berg also runs the website Shit Rentals, where tenants can rate undesirable properties and rental agents.

And he has even taken aim at Aotearoa's terrible rental offerings on his social media page, pointing to a Riccarton rental that was effectively a shed, priced at $260 a week.

Jordan van den Berg shares a video of a converted Riccarton shed priced for rent at $260 per week.

Jordan van den Berg shares a video of a converted Riccarton shed priced for rent at $260 per week. Photo: Purple Pingers / Screenshot

The Australian government turns a blind eye to the plight of renters for a very obvious reason, he told Susie Ferguson.

“They’re landlords, our government is comprised of landlords, they’re overwhelmingly the landlord class, they're more likely than any other profession to own housing, they vote and decide on laws that govern themselves. It's a massive conflict of interest.

“And they have an incentive at the end of the day to make their investment properties portfolio worth more. So that's why they turn a blind eye.”

Some of Australia’s rental stock is a health hazard, he says.

“We had a recent study come out of one of the Adelaide universities that showed that renting makes you age faster, you biologically age faster.”

“So it really brings you closer to death, renting makes you die quicker, which is horrible.”

Some of the rentals on offer he has seen defy belief.

“I've physically visited some of the worst ones that I've seen. One I opened the door and started squelching through the house because the plumbing wasn't connected. And it was just coming up through the ground. And it had been like that for months, and the landlord wasn't doing anything about it.

"Open asbestos over the over the stovetop, it was just a horrible place. You can't really experience that kind of stuff through photos and a story online, but being there was like, wow, this is genuinely horrific.”

A million homes are empty in Australia, and he says his call to squat in them is a logical response to the housing crisis.

“At the end of the day, I'm a socialist and believe collective action can fix a lot of things.

“But we're not very organised over here. So, I can do a little bit of organising, and then get people to help each other where the government fails to step in - that's the plan.”

Squatting, he says, has a “long and storied history in Australia.”

“A bunch of white people came in, killed a bunch of indigenous people and then stole their land. And then the rest of the land rights came through squatting.

“And it is legal here, we have adverse possession. You live somewhere long enough, you can claim that land, but it's a capitalist principle. So, what happens is in Australia the same law that gives you the right to own land in Australia also gives you an obligation to use that land productively. So, if you do not and someone else does, that is their land under adverse possession laws.”

So, how do you prove that you're using property productively?

“You can say I moved in on this day, I did this on this day. You can use a piccie If you want, you can live there, make some changes to the garden, changes the house, change the locks, cut the lawn.

“How do you prove that you live in a in the house you currently live in? You get some bills in your name. That's pretty easy. Change your address on whatever you need to change it on.”

He detects a reluctance to admit to being a landlord as the housing crisis bites, he says.

“I believe it was Adam Smith who said landlords have their origin in robbery. I think landlordism is becoming a bit more of an awkward story, people aren’t as ready to freely admit that they're landlords in Australia.”

In the long term he wants to change the national mind set that housing is an investment, he says.

“The long-term goal is to change the culture in Australia from seeing housing as an investment and talking about housing as a market, too honestly believing that housing is a human right, that every human being has a right to.

“We have a right to shelter over our head, we signed a piece of paper one day in the United Nations, and we've just never backed that up with anything.

“Short-term goals are to get the government to enforce their own legislation. It's pretty simple. We've got it there. They don't do anything about it. And we'll just start slowly shaming them into doing so by embarrassing Australia on an international scale.”

Prior to the recent federal election in Australia, he had discussions with the Australian Labor Party about the housing crisis in that country, he says.

“And then once they got into government it's now their problem and they're not super jazzed with me, because I'm still on my little soapbox talking about how terrible this situation is and how they're still not doing anything about it, because they are still landlords.”

The lack of political will does not surprise him, he says.

“In Australia our political landscape has lent slowly, towards a kind of neoliberalism.

“So, it's not unexpected. I'm no longer disappointed in the things that they do or don't do. However, they're our workers party, they should be doing better.”