Squatting in America

Tent cities under an overpass. Wooden shanties invading vacant lots. Squatters illegally occupying empty houses. This is not Rio, Dhaka or Nairobi. Rather, scenes like this have begun to appear in Fresno, Seattle, Miami and other American cities, where thousands of people are resorting to illegal means to find shelter.

Illegal settlements of homeless people
have recently sprung up in around a dozen American cities as people have lost their jobs and homes and run out of options. As Where noted in a previous post on creative residential responses to the economic crisis, many families have refused to vacate or have illegally occupied foreclosed homes – which makes sense when 1 in 9 (14 million) homes fall in that category. In Miami, Take Back the Land is one of several groups either openly or covertly moving homeless families into empty foreclosed homes. In 2006, the group responded to a deepening housing shortage in Liberty City, Miami, by erecting a shantytown on a vacant lot that had held low-income housing, until the city demolished it 8 years earlier. Known as Umoja Village, the shantytown housed up to 50 homeless people until it burned down in 2007.

What does it mean when one of the world’s richest nations starts squatting? Although the economic recession has made houselessness jarringly visible, it’s really the tipping point of a much older affordable housing crisis. Homelessness is nothing new in America, and low and middle-income Americans have increasingly been priced out of the nation’s cities, even in the best of economic times. But when large numbers of working class, and even middle-class people, resort to the tactics of slum dwellers to find shelter in the city, it makes front-page news.

At the root of the issue is a subjective question: Is shelter a commodity or a right? As a society, we have treated it as both. We let the real estate market do most of the distribution. We agree that those who have more money are entitled to purchase larger homes in better locations.

On the other hand, we don’t think the built environment should be left entirely to the whims of developers. We enact zoning laws and building regulations to make sure that we live in structurally safe, well-ventilated buildings in quiet, unpolluted neighborhoods with enough open space. We agree to provide housing at below-market rates to certain people, like the elderly, disabled and very poor. In some places, we have rent control to keep housing affordable. Most of us echo President Obama’s conviction that it is "not acceptable for children and families to be without a roof over their heads in a country as wealthy as ours.” This is affirmed by the fact that illegal squatting has in many cases either been tacitly permitted (policemen not evicting squatters) or openly accepted or encouraged (cities placing portable toilets and security guards near encampments, a Congresswoman encouraging squatting in foreclosed homes) by the powers that be. We sign on to the idea that there is a "right to adequate housing," which the UN promotes (but obviously can’t enforce).

Most societies consider housing to be both a commodity and a basic necessity, but they draw the line in different places. In the U.S., we lean very much to the side of the market in comparison with our European counterparts.

Markets are an efficient way to distribute many types of goods — like the classic example of the ice cream stand we learn about in microeconomics. However, we agree that, even with willing buyers and sellers, some goods cannot be commodities for moral reasons (organs, sex). Other goods can be sold in the market, but must be made available for free or at subsidized rates to those who can’t afford them because they are basic necessities and rights (education, health care – again, to a lesser extent in the U.S. than in Europe). We haven’t tended to think of housing in this way.

Markets are great distributional tools, but they are only tools. What happens when our existing distribution system is not delivering basically adequate housing at affordable rates to all citizens?

The reason that slums crowd developing world cities is the same reason they are emerging in the U.S. It’s more obvious when 60% of the population have to access shelter outside of formal mechanisms, and policies and planning have as much to do with slum formation as markets, but the fact remains: if the system isn’t providing housing at affordable rates for a significant amount of people, there’s something wrong with the system.

(Photos from New York Times and Yes Magazine.)


Katia Savchuk said...

David Harvey is also a squatting supporter: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/14/urban-theory-at-the-down-town-club/?scp=2&sq=urban%20blog&st=cse

Anonymous said...

Nice article! I had no idea about squatter communities in the States. I'd love to see some numbers on them... how much have they grown since the housing crisis began? Can you directly map their prevalence to the broader economic downturn? Or were there some policies in the middle that helped speed along their growth?

Drew Austin said...

Dmitry Orlov contrasts the current American situation with the Soviet Union's collapse twenty years ago.

He points out that because all of the Soviet housing was state-owned, people didn't get kicked out when the economy collapsed. In the US, we're seeing what happens when housing is an investment strategy and a consumer product as well as a place to live--economic collapse leads to the unfortuante irony of widespread evictions alongside a surplus of vacant houses. Squatting is the logical solution to that problem!