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A Multi-Story Underground: Squatters in the United States

A Multi-Story Underground: Squatters in the United States

By HANNAH DOBBZ

Matt Bruce is a magician. By this I mean that he literally works kids’ parties for money and entertains friends with sorcery in his spare time. His room is bursting with occult paraphernalia and he has countless tricks up his sleeve. But Matt Bruce is no one-trick pony; he knows more than how to manipulate a deck of cards and how to have a quarter crop up behind your ear: Matt Bruce knows how to make rent bills disappear.

 

Bruce and his friends haven’t paid to live in their bungalow home in Salt Lake City, Utah, in over three years. How do they do it? While most magicians don’t reveal their secrets, Bruce is notably open about his illegal living situation. Squatting is not a new form of rent evasion, but it is an increasingly practiced one—and in light of the so-called “housing crisis” of the late 2000s, squatters are increasingly comfortable discussing their lifestyles.

He summed up their ability to maintain the property with the words of a city worker who learned of the squatters a few months after they moved in: “If you don’t say anything, I won’t say anything. You took the eyesore out of the neighborhood.”

Indeed, the rundown property that had once attracted drug addicts and other unseemly types by its ramshackle appearance now glows with life. The mere presence of the new caretakers drove away the seedy elements, and the small gesture of taking the boards off the windows spoke volumes for the mood of the property.

It is for this reason that squatting has become a popular discussion topic in a post–housing-bubble era. With 14 percent of living units in the United States vacant at the end of 2010, many people are questioning the logic of the real estate market, and some are bucking the system by occupying vacant but usable properties. Families and individuals who can no longer afford the high cost of living, then, are able to find homes in houses that are sometimes in better condition than rental properties. And neighbors often turn a blind eye to the illegality of the squatters’ methods since the move-in can actually increase the value of formerly unoccupied properties.

In this way, squatting in the United States is taking on more European overtones. Europe is famous for its squatting history, with its grandiose stories of squatted night clubs in England and squatted castles in Spain. Some countries enjoy what are often called “open” squatting laws, which encourage squatters to openly occupy abandoned buildings. Amsterdam, for example, is known for its comically straight-forward requirement of a chair, a table, and a bed in a squatted building for 48 hours to constitute a legal property transfer. In these situations, neighbors are often supportive. After all, abandoned properties are a symptom of a broken property system. Why not address it?

More recently, some European countries have begun tightening their formerly lax squatting rules, which some read as a slipping away of what was once part of a powerful cultural history. But while a legislative shift is happening now overseas, a cultural shift is beginning here in the States.

Rich countries such as the United States are accustomed to surplus. Just as consumers enjoy a surplus of food, clothes, and plastic trinkets in the U.S., they similarly enjoy a surplus of real estate. Even beyond the housing-bubble burst, developers continue to build new living units despite a surfeit of old ones. This is where the term “housing crisis” is farcical at best and downright inaccurate at worst. The term “crisis” implies a shortage—an idea that Americans are rarely familiar with; instead, the American poor are victimized by a maldistribution of resources.

While there has never been a shortage of space in the United States, Americans have historically deluded themselves into a state of spatial urgency, moving further West and always developing more for fear of a shortage.

The same can be said of the “housing crisis” that began in late 2007: The most famous example of a wide housing gap is that of Miami, Fl., which was supposedly hit hardest by the economic implosion. But Miami had a 10-percent vacancy rate in affordable and public housing even before the alleged crisis. Further, the city had demolished 482 units of public housing, and, despite $8.5 million of city money allocated to the rebuilding of affordable units, the lot remained vacant until it was later offered to developers at no charge.

Such shenanigans inspired the Miami Herald’s “House of Lies” series, which highlights the corruption and incompetency of city politicians with regard to housing, as well as the well-known organized-squatting movement Take Back the Land.

But squatting was not born of the housing bust: Squatting has a long history in the United States, beginning with colonization, extending through Western Expansion land grants and land boom legislation, homesteading, and into modern housing justice movements like that of ACORN and Homes Not Jails. If nothing else, squatters have historically catalyzed property legislation reform by attacking with two prongs: (1) garnering public support by calling attention to the basic right to personal space and shelter, and (2) becoming such a nuisance to property managers, speculators, and law enforcement that legislators are compelled to create other options.

Unfortunately, little information is broadly available about squatters and squatting. Here and there is mention of them in historical texts, and during the height of the foreclosure crisis articles about down-and-out families cascaded into the news and then quickly evaporated. Perhaps this information firewall is in the nature of American squatting, which remains clandestine; like the tunnel dwellers of New York City and Las Vegas, squatting movements live underground. And while this invisibility is not unintentional, as squatting is indeed an illicit lifestyle, it is squatters’ invisibility that siphons their power and cripples their political sway.

When squatters and other property outlaws can again unite, organize, and step into the limelight to publicly demand housing justice (as they historically have), we may see surprising changes in the legal framework of our predatory property system. Many revolutions begin underground. But none of them can stay there for long.

 

Hannah Dobbz is the director of the documentary film Shelter: A Squatumentary. She is currently researching and writing a book [AK Press] on the history of squatting, land struggles, and property law in the United States. To view her Kickstarter page or to support her work, please visit: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1578702306/the-history-and-future-of-squatting-in-the-us-the