Renegade homesteaders

By Michelle Chen Feb 20, 2009

It took a total collapse of the mortgage bubble to expose the intrinsic contradictions of the country’s housing system: the foreclosure epidemic has produced countless idle houses, inviting blight and economic decline into once-vibrant neighborhoods; and on the flipside, countless families are being pushed out of their homes by debt and joblessness. The juxtaposition of excess and scarcity is leading some community activists to mete out their own version of restorative justice. ACORN is running perhaps the most comprehensive foreclosure-resistance campaign, mobilizing members in more than twenty cities to defend homes and raise public awareness through civil disobedience. One ACORN member in Baltimore, Donna Hanks, reflected on how being shut out of her foreclosed home is hurting her community:

"How is this helping anybody?… The banks are losing money, and we’re left out in the cold. We’re hardworking people, not drug dealers, and they’re kicking us out.”

In South Florida, ground zero for the housing bust, people left homeless by economic tumult are staking out new territory by taking over vacant properties. Max Rameau, an organizer with Take Back the Land, a grassroots project focused on the Miami area’s Black community, sees the effort as a way to help relieve homelessness in the immediate term (and a practical way to prevent wholesale abandonment of properties), but an act of protest. Activists in Richmond have launched a smaller-scale "homesteader" uprising, working to move into empty houses run by a landlord who residents say is promoting blight. And the San Francisco Bay Area is seeing resurgence in an old school squatter’s rights movement, driven by a group called Homes Not Jails. On the surface, such efforts may appear to simply channel populist rage or drum up publicity. But they’re powerfully symbolic. For the communities of color most deeply hit by the foreclosure crisis, they’re acts of self-determination. In contrast to partisan paralysis and general chaos in Congress, contemporary squatters’ rights campaigns seem to be creatively making the most out of the ravages of the housing crash. Direct actions don’t substitute for a coherent housing policy, but they highlight the need for one, by making a statement of basic common sense in a facet of the economy that has long ceased to behave rationally.