Why you should care
Long-vacant buildings have a lot of prospective tenants — who currently sleep on the street.
Frank Morales spent years in the 1980s and ’90s walking the line between legal and illegal — unusual stomping ground for an Episcopal priest. Along with hundreds of others who routinely made homes in vacant buildings in New York City’s Lower East Side, Morales was squatting. Then as now, the cost of housing was ridiculous, and at the time, all kinds of properties languished, unloved and there for the taking by urban homesteaders. But anti-squatter pushback from the city was fierce, including mass evictions and surprise demolitions, with people’s pets and belongings trapped inside.
Morales no longer has to worry about that, because today he doesn’t squat. No, he didn’t move. Rather, in 2002, he was part of a complicated process through which 11 squats were granted ownership of their homes.
The neighborhood has changed too. In part because of Morales and his merry band of outlaw building renovators, the Lower East Side has gone from heroin central to, well, Whole Foods central. “It was a form of protest as well as a necessity,” says Morales, who, like many of his friends, built up his place from an empty, decrepit shell to the kind of charming dwelling that newcomers with finance gigs pay premium prices to emulate.
There are about 610,000 homeless people in the U.S., while approximately 17 million housing units remain vacant.
Nowadays, with the U.S. in the midst of an affordable housing crisis, we would be smart not just to applaud Morales’ craftiness and subversion but also to encourage others to do the same. The math is basic: On any given day, there are about 610,000 homeless people in the U.S., while approximately 17 million housing units remain vacant. Getting municipalities or banks to fork over abandoned buildings happens, but rarely. That’s where squatting comes in.
Virtually every state in the U.S. has laws permitting adverse possession after a fixed period, usually between 7 and 21 years. But it is not an easy gauntlet to run. Florida recently outlawed the practice, and in many other states, successful squatting is rare. Those who do succeed typically face multiple arrests and trespassing charges before they can call themselves proud homeowners.
And while many today consider squatting the province of anarcho-punks (in some cases, it is), the concept dates back to the Code of Hammurabi, enacted by the first king of the Babylonian Empire circa 1754 B.C. Hammurabi introduced adverse possession, entitling someone who is tending to unoccupied land for a certain amount of time to legally claim that land. The idea was to improve land productivity and stewardship so that everyone would benefit.
Our society is much less agrarian now, but squatting has the same benefits today as in Hammurabi’s time. Nobody pays rent, utilities or property taxes on an abandoned building — and boarded-up windows aren’t exactly good for property values or neighborhood morale. Squatters-turned-homeowners make payments, rejuvenate the block and raise property values — and inspire the Jane Jacobs in us.
Of course, not everyone is on board. Squatters aren’t usually desperate families looking for “any port in a storm” but “opportunists who try to profit from what is often someone else’s misfortune,” argues Steven Bender, a professor of law at Seattle University School of Law. Not all squatters are looking to rebuild houses; some end up treating the places poorly, he says.
Yet if the real benefit to society stems from occupation, and not just ownership, isn’t it in all our best interests to make the road to legal possession a bit less illicit? Until then, caveat agripeta. Squatter, beware.