The bursting of the housing bubble in mid-2007 and the subsequent disintegration of the subprime mortgage market left hundreds of thousands of homes with delinquent owners in foreclosure and rendered hundreds of thousands of renters homeless. Within this context, a radical exercise in community control based in Miami, Take Back the Land, has implemented an uncompromising vision of what connecting community needs with existing community resources might look like in practice while applying pressure at the visible contradictions of capitalism.
The organization, led by Max Rameau, broke into foreclosed, vacant homes, performed repairs, and housed homeless families in them. Rehoused families were encouraged to openly use the home, attend neighborhood and community meetings, and register for utilities in their names. Becoming active members of the community was central to Take Back the Land’s campaign, simultaneously normalizing the need to house homeless families while building solidarity between residents. With the mortgage financing of many of these homes in disarray, entwined in a complex network of delinquent landlords, scurrying multinational banks, and bankrupt government agencies, ticketing the inhabitants for trespassing was almost unheard of. Indeed, the response from law enforcement was that they would not enforce violations unless instructed to do so by the bank—demonstrating the possibilities of similar actions in capacity-strapped municipalities with housing need mismatches.
Take Back the Land has spread to Rochester, Detroit, and Baltimore and continues to settle homeless families in vacant homes littering the urban fabric. These grassroot efforts can slowly repopulate neglected urban spaces, providing foundations for new communities to emerge and thrive. Meanwhile, city officials in Baltimore continue to draw up plans for the demolition of unused properties to open land for development by for-profit developers. Activists in these cities, influenced by the movement in Miami, steadfastly claim that you do not need to destroy a vacant home just to rebuild; you merely need to make appropriate renovations and reuse it. While some homes might require significant investment, they also present opportunities for socially minded developers, affordable housing advocates, historic preservationists, and city officials to collaborate for more innovative solutions than relying on new construction.
The most hopeful lesson to draw from the land occupation and the squatting activities organized by Take Back the Land is that pressure can be applied anywhere. Empty shopping malls, acres of carless parking lots, uninhabited duplexes, and in-development parcels littering Manhattan awaiting peak speculative value can all be leveraged. Civic engagement does not need to occur in a predetermined way to carry weight; it needs only to be precise. By applying pressure at the visible fractures in our system, movements can drive change. To Take Back the Land, community control meant identifying the needs of a marginalized group and matching them with an available resource at an opportune time. In the future, groups that promote land occupation and squatting might look to formalize their activity in the form of a community land trust or other cooperative ownership model. Florida’s adverse possession law states that in addition to occupying the land for seven years, the trespasser must also have paid all liens and taxes. Importantly, they must also prove that the property has been maintained or improved since the possession. Municipalities hoping to stabilize their communities might want to look to these groups as promoters of responsible land stewardship in abandoned neighborhoods.
In short, Take Back the Land connected homeless people with people-less homes, furthering the notion that all, regardless of socioeconomic status, deserve the right to housing.
There’s a long history of this on Manhattan’s Lower East Side which, despite being so gentrified today, still retains hundreds of low-income Housing Development Fund Corporations, many still inhabited by the families that rehabilitated them in the ’70s and ’80s. In this case the buildings weren’t foreclosed on by banks, they were abandoned by the landlords…but in terms of “formalizing” the squat, there’s lots to be learned from the role that community coalitions, tenant associations, and religious groups played in securing legal recognition from the city.
This is work Cheri Honkala has been doing for years with HUD foreclosed properties, a MUCH easier effort to tackle. But this approach also often drives wedges within communities, pitting neighbors against “squatters” and further stigmatizing those experiencing homelessness as “lawbreakers.” Until we move away from “section 8” type voucher housing and instead create a national “homeless renter pool” of funds that can be used to provide subsidies for market rate housing access, we’ll constantly have a shortage of “affordable housing” options because there’s no money in it for developers. All the efforts to circumvent this are going to result in a further fracturing of our communities, while increasing the stigma and discrimination against those experiencing homelessness.