Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Legalize Squatting and Solve Multiple City Problems At The Same Time!

In the direct action struggle over housing in New Orleans, the current situation is roughly as follows: there are many squatters, numbering at least in the hundreds. Many of them are people of color, all of them are poor. Many squatters are arrested and jailed regularly, especially african-american squatters who dare to attempt it, as well as other vulnerable populations (youth, queers, women, etc..).

Understandably, not everyone wants to risk the arrests, financial insecurity, hardships, and precariousness of the squatting life to directly challenge capital and the state in their everyday lives (in exchange for certain freedoms when you are successful, it must be's not all bad!). And many other people, due to skin color, children, or other reasons, cannot sustainably and safely squat in New Orleans without more legal protections.

Fortunately, for those who can't or don't want to become squatters and engage in the direct occupation of vacant buildings themselves, there are other ways to participate! Those who are fortunate enough to not have to squat by necessity should do everything possible to support those who do, and not just leave those who need places to live to deal with city hall and the prison industrial complex all on their own.

Non-racist landlords and a small amount of "affordable" housing (that's too expense for many people anyway) is not good enough for many of us. We want OUT of housing systems where we have no power and can be constantly pushed around by those with more money. Any time a neighborhood starts to make itself nicer to live in, richer people come in and steal our neighborhoods, and we are forced out. The rich always take everything nice away from the poor. No more!
Thousands of homes sit empty in New Orleans.
Squatting legalization campaign:
Build up an alliance: renters sick of high post-Katrina rents, housing advocacy groups, neighborhood organizations, anti-blight groups, homeless advocates, anti-crime groups, anti-racist groups, young entrepreneurs groups,criminal justice reform groups, economic development groups, national policy groups working on vacant property issues (ie- National Vacant Properties Campaign --who've already been involved locally), firefighters. Get all these groups to sign on, then bring this list of endorsers to City Council to show how broad the support for putting homes and vacant commercial properties back to use is.

The multiple reasons for the alliance partners to support such a "homesteading legalization campaign" include:
  • vacant buildings facilitate crime
  • young entrepreneurs have a hard time accessing capital, including property, to start a business out of
  • would-be homeowners can't get mortgages now because of mortgage crisis (especially minorities)
  • there are multiple positive economic development impacts and economic multipliers that come with new businesses and formerly vacant properties being used as housing
  • it is a ground-up, grassroots model of development that builds widely shared wealth and stability, rather than the current top down development model that enriches a few development companies and creates instability for those displaced in grand schemes
  • the city will be able to decrease public safety spending both because of full neighborhoods (which reduces crime, as their are neighbors to watch out for one another and no abandoned houses for criminals to hide within) as well as less crime due to an easing of economic hardships surrounding housing that create desperation
  • it will stabilize turnover rates in neighborhoods and increase neighbor-connectedness, and therefore safety
  • the city will benefit from increased property taxes with an increase of houses in circulation and new businesses operating
  • the city will have to spend less on infrastructure maintenance costs for cureently semi-empty neighborhoods as neighbors do things like keep gutters clear and lawns mowed and stopping destruction by vines
  • it will allow a huge decrease in the city's blight remediation expenses
  • it will decreases city costs associated with homeless services 
  • it would lessen the reliance on prison as a solution to homelessness and poverty, providing a hand up and helping the city give a better impression to visitors by solving much of the "problem" of visible homelessness
Vacant commercial properties impede the growth of the economy and keep wealth and power concentrated in the hands of the idle rich.
The campaign strategy could look like:
A campaign for the legalization of "homesteading" in properties vacant for more than a certain number of months, perhaps 12 to 24. As a "compromise" measure the campaign could ask for de-criminalization (which would actually be better anyway so house flippers/investors can't squat for profit).
It must have limits to the specifics of how one can squat in order to succeed. These would need to include such restrictions as a building having to be empty for a certain period of time to be eligible, it must not be an owner's primary residence, a homesteader must not be able to sell the property for more than the cost of repairs for a period of time after occupying it, maybe for like 15 years after it is occupied. Priority in conflicts stemming from multiple people trying to claim a building should go to the resident who has been in New Orleans longer (so carpetbaggers from Brooklyn or where ever don't take over everything and leave out people trying to come back post-Katrina). There are many more details than these that would need to be fleshed out.

The campaign should use some examples:
There are already several squatted buildings that show how a squatted building can improve a neighborhood. Testimonials from neighbors, housing advocates and researchers, and other stakeholders stating it has improved the character of the neighborhood could do wonders to sway the city.
There are also other cities where unwanted homes have been sold for $1 to anyone willing to fix them up and live in them. This has been very successful in Detriot and some other rustbelt cities.

The improvements for the city that come with this idea far outweigh the benefits of allowing property owners to sit on empty properties that make tourist areas like the French Quarter seem derelict and dangerous, and that make our neighborhoods easier places to commit crimes against residents.

This fire destroyed a vacant building in the French Quarter last year. It likely could have been prevented if such buildings were not allowed to sit empty.
Why radicals should care about this reform:
Will this destroy class society? No. Will it end the more privileged being able to gain greater advantage in our society? No. Will it slow down gentrification? Maybe. But, while an imperfect reform, it's a reform that can create more space for autonomy from the demands and impositions of the state and capitalism, which would allow radicals to focus on creating greater revolutionary power and having more time to ourselves in which we can do so. Territory is extremely important to radical movements, and land has been a central struggle within capitalism since the struggles over the enclosures of the commons.

This is obviously just a rough outline of what a homesteading legalization campaign could look like, and perhaps it's pie-in-the-sky, but what else is working?

For more, see Squatting The Apocalypse and Homeless in New Orleans: You have to fight the entire city just to survive


  1. Would A Squatting Movement Have Saved These 4 Lives? Probably.

    "A woman and three children were found shot dead Tuesday evening in their Kenner home, a pistol lying nearby. The house had been seized for delinquent payments on the mortgage, and police said it appeared the woman killed the children then took her own life."

  2. New Orleans, because of Hurricane Katrina, is late in coming to the foreclosure tsunami that has been drowning the rest of the country for the past 4 years. After the storm, housing prices went through the roof as the government failed to protect people from the shock of a housing market suddenly missing a huge percentage of its stock. They left it up to the market, which always simply means the wealthy use their money to push poor people out and take the best for themselves, leading to spikes in homelessness, people living with relatives, and many people living in hurricane damaged homes while they repaired them and waited for Road Home money. It also caused rental prices to nearly double.

    The stress of the disaster combined with the attack by the rich and landlords caused a great many suicides, mental health problems, and stress related early deaths. The housing policies implemented post-Katrina literally killed people. But these policies were necessary for keeping the poor back on their heels, in shock, and vulnerable to the capitalist vultures who came in to exploit our crisis to create wealth for themselves via the model of a neo-liberal, privatized city. This economic model is continuing to be pursued today.

    Now, almost 6 years after the storm, the foreclosures seen around the U.S. are coming to New Orleans in greater numbers. Banks don't care about what these homeowners may have gone through to fix up their storm-damaged homes, don't care if they have nowhere to go, and don't care if they've been part of the fabric of their neighborhood for decades or not. They care about one thing and one thing only: profit. Bank of America, who holds among the most foreclosed properties in the city, doesn't even have any bank branches here.

    Foreclosures have been late in coming to New Orleans because there was a moratorium on them after the hurricanes, since no one could pay their mortgage then, and because banks weren't very interested in taking possession of thousands of storm-damaged homes that needed serious repairs before being re-sold.

    As more housing stock has come back on the market, rental prices have begun to come down, though they are still higher than 2005 prices. The costs of buying a home has also come down since then, both due to the slow-down in the housing market post-2008 and now due to the returning of more homes to livability after the storm.

    Despite the fact that it is blatantly cruel and unfair to surprise tenants with an eviction notice because their landlord has been foreclosed upon, Sheriffs continue to act as attack dogs for Wall Street banks and kick renters out to the curb, up-ending their lives, so that a home may sit empty and neighborhoods that are desperate to have people filling them back up post-storm may lose more people. It doesn't have to be this way, in Chicago the Sheriff decided to refuse to evict tenants renting in homes that get foreclosed on. Would Sheriff Gusman decide on a policy with such obvious basic decency to renters who've done no wrong? Considering his track record of hiding OPCSO's finances, warehousing the poor in OPP for per-diem rates, holding immigrants for months for the federal money, and other disgusting power-hungry psychopathic policies, a policy that is actually fair to those with less power in our system is highly unlikely to come about due to his own good will.

  3. continued from above.....

    Neighborhoods who want the homes on their block to have people living in them, to have a community that feels alive and safe rather than empty and dangerous, could take things in to their own hands against Wall Street banks. They could take over empty foreclosed homes and move people in to them. Perhaps their are people who once lived in the neighborhood who would like to move back in? Perhaps their is a homeless family, who, if they just had a stable place to live, could save up the money to get back on their feet? Perhaps some of the hundreds of people Mayor Landrieu is responsible for forcing to sleep under a bridge near the New Orleans Mission could use a safe place to live to help get themselves on a more secure footing, the way "housing first" policies have done in other cities? Take Back the Land and other affiliated groups around the US have been doing just that, deciding not to allow their communities to be torn apart, thrown into disarray, precarity, and instability for the profit of banks who caused this entire financial crisis in the first place. Rather than the homeless vs. the housed, or renters vs. owners, those who care about creating livable and dignified communities can re-frame the battle to one of New Orleans vs. Wall Street. When Katrina came, most of our city felt such a sense of unity, felt so bound together, and had such a feeling of solidarity with one another, that we would all help one another overcome the disaster together. Well, there is another hurricane happening right now, a financial hurricane. Will we recognize it as such, or will we sit by and only worry about ourselves as our neighbors drown financially and disaster strikes home by home in a patchwork of misery throughout our neighborhoods?

    The solution is simple: when there are empty buildings, half-abandoned neighborhoods, and homeless people, both those problems can be solved at once. The city could solve this tomorrow, by legalizing squatting, but, without a fight from the people who actually have to live amongst the ruins of capitalist reality, they won't do it. They are funded by, and therefore committed to, a city of privatization, a city where profit, not human need, determines everything about the city. A city for profit, not people.The city is the new factory.

    It's up to us to demand a different kind of city. A city where we take care of one another. A city where we look out for one another. A city where people come before profits. A city where safety is a result of communities of solidarity who hold one another up, and not a result of excessive police and prisons. A city where we recognize we can only survive and thrive together. We've all seen this city exist in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, where we shared what we had because people needed it. Where we helped each other fix what was broken, because we had to. Let's remember that way of interacting. Let's remember each other. It is the only way we will survive. Otherwise, we'll always be swimming upstream, allowing the chaos of poverty, violence, and instability to flow through our city as we try to swim against that current alone.

  4. America's Poorest People Running Out Of Places To Live: Study

  5. Right On! This is a great article. I'm stoked to have found this site. Sending Solidarity from a Squat in West Oakland California.

  6. Wow--licorice fern roots are STRONG. I love licorice, so I thought I'd try a root while out foraging last week.
    I think cooking with the root and not chewing it like the natives did might be the better idea... Thanks for all of the good info here!

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