Homeless Squatters vs. Gentrifiers

Ideas and Issues
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December 21, 2020

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Pearl River Congress passed a skinny stimulus bill for $900 billion to win the “better than nothing” award for 2020. Whoopee! The bill does promise a bit of cash for everyone in the by and by, and that’s good. Legislators snuck in a piece that bars surprise medical bills, which is also good news, though I would love to know how on-the-ground ambulance services managed to slip the noose.

The bill also barred evictions at least for a minute. At one point that provision was going to include $26 billion for relief for both tenants and small landlords, but we’re all waiting for the details there. Some landlords won’t and can’t wait. Some are trying to crawl through loopholes and confusion. Motels renting by the week are claiming exemption from the eviction ban. Door knocking at a trailer park in Atlanta’s Fulton County last week, one tenant showed us their eviction notice as well. For many landlords, large and small, good and bad, even with an eviction ban, it’s “stop me if you can,” rather than doing the right thing.

How are we going to stop homelessness, and who is going to do it? This is going to be a problem that won’t recede from sight. A movie that lies somewhere on the spectrum between fiction and documentary called Nomadland is essentially about the homeless on wheels. But, that’s for folks who in fact have wheels.

A New Yorker story by Francesa Mari called “A Lonely Occupation,” is a startling look at the crossroads of homelessness and gentrification. Often trends start in California and then spread to the rest of the country.  Homelessness has become rooted there in cities like Los Angeles. As Mari notes,

L.A. has the highest median home prices, relative to income, and among the lowest homeownership rates of any major city….Renting isn’t any easier. The area has the lowest vacancy rates in the country, and the average rent is twenty-two hundred dollars a month. On any night, some sixty-six thousand people there sleep in cars, in shelters, or on the street, an increase of thirteen per cent since last year.

The story is about the experience of homeless men who are employed as house sitters for properties being flipped, many in minority neighborhoods undergoing gentrification.  The sitters aren’t squatters, but are low grade, low paid security employed to stop squatters. Their situation is miserable, but arguably better than others without even that option or opportunity.

What caught my eye was the work and actions of the Alliance for Californians for Community Empowerment or ACCE, the former California ACORN. A common tactic for ACORN was squatting to force cities to open up housing opportunities, and they are using their experience to push the envelope open again. Here’s Mari’s report:

The week before Thanksgiving, 2019, a group of Black mothers calling themselves Moms 4 Housing occupied a Wedgewood property in West Oakland that they said had been vacant for years. They washed the walls, installed a water heater, and set up their children’s bunk beds. Then they began paying the water and electric bills. Two months later, Alameda County sheriff’s deputies arrived in riot gear and removed them. Shelter-in-place orders to minimize the spread of COVID-19 have brought new attention to vacant houses owned by investors. The Alliance for Californians for Community Empowerment, which supported Moms 4 Housing, staged an occupation of vacant homes owned by Caltrans in L.A., and throughout the summer the group organized rent strikes and protests against eviction.

The pandemic isn’t ending and evictions are coming, hell or high water. Squatting sounds like a plan. The answer to stopping homelessness is likely on all of us.