Squatting Déjà vu in Philadelphia

ACORN Housing United States

New Orleans I was intrigued by the headline in Harper’s “No Vacancy” with a subtitle: “Can empty houses help solve homelessness?”  The eyebrow above the head hooked me completely: “Letter from Philadelphia.”  Was this a story about something new in Philly or déjà vu all over again of ACORN’s dynamic and successful squatting campaign in the same city forty years ago?  Sadly, it turned out to be a newish story about an old problem in both Philadelphia and elsewhere, but also something akin to a planet revolving around the city’s sun that had no idea of life and experience in another orbit years ago.

The reporter had visited a homeless encampment in 2020 in North Philly, which had also been the heart of the ACORN base.  He was enchanted by woman who was clearly the leader there and who had also helped other homeless families commandeer a couple of dozen vacant properties.  This wasn’t a simple squat.  At one level she and team had been strategically astute by putting up their tent city on a lot that was the future site for a huge $52 million development project.  At the other level, similar to ACORN’s strategy in the 1980s, just as we did, they were careful to camp and squat on vacant, but city owned properties, making the city the primary target of the campaign.

It was bittersweet to read that “The lot and all of the homes were owned by the city or the Philadelphia Housing Authority.  Altogether the municipal authorities owned around ten thousand vacant properties, many of which had been empty for decades.”  It was bitter to read that Philly still had that many vacant houses, but sweet not only because they were on the same tactical wavelength that we had traveled, but also because even 10,000 vacant houses are such a lower number than forty years ago, even if that’s small comfort.  The story finds that the Census Bureau counts “14.6 million vacant housing units in the United States” and even in “…San Francisco, a city plagued by a severe housing shortage, there are over sixty thousand vacant units – thirteen times the number of people thought to be sleeping on the streets.”

This group of squatters forced the housing authority to cough up a couple of houses and decamped over to them, allowing the development to move forward, and forging a relationship of sorts between their leadership and PHA management.  When we won in the 80s in Philly, we also created a housing trust, just as they did, and encountered some of the same struggles that befell them.  We finally abandoned the housing trust model, which was never very popular with our squatter members, no matter how much I advocated for it and believed in it.  Out of our experience came both the ACORN Housing Corporation’s work in both development and rehab, and loan counseling that turned out to be even more successful and effective.  

In this story, their struggles still continue with some success in a couple of houses.  That part of this tale didn’t surprise me, but I was mystified that there was no mention of the schemes ACORN had won that allowed a transfer of title process in Philly for virtually a dollar?  Did the city scuttle that program over recent years, when ACORN was less active?  Or, is it still on the books and “quiet kept”?  Certainly, the Homesteading Act we won nationally after moving squatting from Philly to ACORN cities throughout the country is still law.  

The reporter and some scholars and activists advocate taking this strategy nationally, which I heartily support, even if it’s not a new idea and for ACORN a case of “been there, done that,” but the problems of a national commitment and funding program to make that happen at scale remains unresolved.  That’s not new either.  I guess I also shouldn’t be surprised that the history of struggle on this issue seems unknown, even if Philadelphia was right at the nexus of our strategy and tactics, but it still saddens me to think how much easier it might have been for the folks working there now, if our two planets had managed to be in the same time and orbit and collided in a good way to make these hard fought victories stick permanently.