Over the past few years, it has been apparent that more and more houses are being squatted by a very diverse mixture of people. This mix would include:
* Former homeowners taking back properties repossessed by the banks
* Crafty peeps faking adverse possession claims
* So-called sovereign citizens (“radical-right conservatives who believe that they are exempt from government requirement such as taxes and driver’s licenses”) filing fake property deeds in Georgia
* Housing activists doing very public actions (more on that below)
* The homeless finding shelter themselves
* Nudists with axes to grind in Ohio
* Wells Fargo executives illegally living in $12 million mansions in Malibu
* And finally, even the occasional drunken celebrity liberating their old house (Randy Quaid).
Back in 2008, the Daily Telegraph observed that Take Back The Land in Miami were helping the homeless to reclaim property, whilst in Atlanta owners were even paying people with nowhere else to go to live in their houses in a sort of brokered antisquat deal which really seemed like it was winwin for everyone.
The following year, the New York Times quoted Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, as saying that about dozen advocacy groups around the country were actively moving homeless people into vacant homes — some working in secret, others, like Take Back the Land, operating openly.
Following in the tradition of San Francisco based Homes Not Jails and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty up in Canada, these housing groups simply seek to draw attention to the fact that houses are rotting whilst people are on the street. As the economic situation deteriorates, we can expect more dereliction and naturally squatters will take advantage of this state of affairs. The LA Times commented recently: “Given their clandestine lives, it's impossible to say how many people are squatting in this country, but with more than 1.3 million homes in foreclosure and hundreds of thousands of people homeless, advocates say it's safe to assume the number is growing.”
In the same article, a member of the Coalition for the Homeless in New York says "You have these abandoned dwellings that are sitting there vacant, sometimes for many months. It's not an issue of whether squatting is right or wrong. The fact is that people are desperate for places to live, and they're going to do what they need to do.”
As levels of desperation rise, a political movement is emerging to engage with it (much as it did in Amsterdam or London in the 1970s). A discourse which has been cut from the mainstream media is the anarchist one, since in the mainstream media it is no longer allowed to challenge the status quo without being labelled a terrorist. Yet people are constantly attacking the notion of property rights as part of a rational, informed critique of capitalism and its values. The Occupy Movement, with the centrality of anarchist notions such as consensus-based decision-making and horizontality, is finally bringing these ideas into mainstream acceptance (Just to be clear, I don't care if people are closet anarchos or are out and proud, screaming Bakunin from the rooftops, as long as capitalism and property are being put under sustained pressure).
As temperatures dropped and camps were evicted, it's natural that thoughts turned to buildings.
Months ago already, activists took a building in Vienna solidarity with the Global Occupy day back on October 15. Their reasons were both practical and ideological. As they said, “It’s cold already in Vienna, and in the next weeks winter will get harsher,” but also “a self-organized social centre is desperately needed to overcome the singularization of everyone and the privatization and commercialization of everything.” Unfortunately the centre was quickly evicted. But the idea had been launched.
Here n London, a huge empty building was reclaimed and opened up as the Bank of Ideas. It is being used for a whole host of events. And now a court building unused since 1996 has been squatted and requisitioned as a people's court, where such figures of hate as Fred Godwin (former Chief Executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland) and Tony Blair are going to be put on trial.
The recent wave of occupations in the U$A began in Denver, back in October. An attempt to squat a building was brutally repressed:“Witnesses report that the raid was very violent, with at least 8 officers repeatedly beating one of the arrestees, and eventually using paramedics to sedate them while they laid face down, bleeding, in the street.”
Likewise in Oakland, where the building was evicted. But the occupation was only anticipated to be symbolic and the virus was spreading. Symbolic occupations might still turn into something if enough people turn up and get stuck in. Now Occupy Oakland are planning to squat a large building owned by the city or a bank to use as a social centre for the Occupy movement. The date has been set for this very public action as January 28, 2012.
In New York a coalition of community groups including Occupy and Organise for Occupation marched to Brooklyn and squatted a foreclosed house for homeless people. These squatters are doing it in public, in numbers and with media awareness. One reporter commented “The house is being continually livestreamed and OWS is there to help the family in numerous ways both to protect them against eviction and to help them in fixing up and cleaning the house.” Tellingly s/he added “Seven additional families have already asked OWS for help regarding foreclosure issues.”
The Village Voice noted approvingly that compared to motley crews camping out, “the occupied homes present a much clearer narrative: previously homeless families and young children, put into homes that the bankers' broken system had left vacant and rotting for years” and went on to say “There was some indication last week that the banks were rattled by this new tactic. A former subsidiary of Countrywide Financial, now owned by Bank of America, sent an e-mail warning field agents about the home occupations and asking them to check the bank’s foreclosed properties to 'ensure they are secured'.”
With people power on their side, these squats stand the chance of succeeding. And there is a sense that this is a way for the 99% to take effective action which is both direct and on-violent. There seems to be a confluence of factors – rising repossessions mean more houses are empty every day. The Occupy movement is dripping anarchist ideas into the mainstream. People have had enough and are starting to dig their heels in.
And so a new wave of squatting begins....
Back in April 2011, a real estate lawyer in Florida said “We haven‘t seen this kind of level of squatters since the Great Depression. There’s a massive inventory of excessive realty.”
Well it's only going to get worse. Perhaps squatting is the silver lining...
In Atlanta – Occupy activists have saved a war veteran's house from foreclosure and now are looking to open up a community centre in the same area. “Neighbourhoods have all these empty shells,” says one Occupy participant. “It holds the neighbourhood hostage. Many had windows boarded up. Many have been havens for crime. Many have been empty for five years. They are empty because the banks make a little bit more on the insurance.”
In Seattle there are a growing number of public squats. The Seattle Times records concerning one “They have strung up a banner that says 'Occupy Everything — No Banks No Landlords.' The red and black anarchist flag also decorates the front.” When they asked a squatter what was going on, she replied "Too many homeless. Too many unoccupied buildings. That doesn't make sense."
In Detroit, there are perhaps the most empty properties anywhere in the States. As the film 'Requiem for Detroit' elegantly suggests, the city is a metaphorical representation of the problems inherent in a boom and bust economy which now spans much of the world. One reporter introduces Squat the Hood – occupying the city one house at a time: “There are a lot of neighbourhoods in Detroit where people squat. The difference here is that this is being done for a larger purpose, not just to exist. It is part of the movement, and the goal is to rebuild.”
George Katsiaficas suggests with his eros effect theory that social movements grow and prosper through the cross-fertilisation of ideas. Hopefully just as the idea to Occupy spaces spread lie wildfire around the world, now the urge to take buildings will memetically replicate.
A movement does seem to be in development. We could add to the lengthening list of places where squats are being opened Santa Cruz and Chapel Hill.
"I wouldn't say it's the new normal yet, but I think it's coming close to that," says a participant in Take Back the Land – Rochester, when asked about people squatting vacant homes, or refusing eviction orders from their own homes.
As in response, a cop in Portland says "The vacant-property issue is of concern in cities nationwide. We'll treat them all as trespassers" but surely it's just a matter of time before that attitude becomes unviable, even in the belly of the beast. For whilst laws are being passed which make commentators fear for the future of the States, people on the streets are taking action.