Like everything else there are many sides to squatting

Working title: Do squatters help or hurt challenged neighborhoods?, Pt. 3

My friends laid out for me the reasons why they believed squatters have the right idea after my question in the previous post:

  • They talked of the critical shortage of affordable housing in Chicago (in livable condition).
  • They talked of the overabundance of properties that have been abandoned so long that neighbors can’t even remember the last legitimate owner.
  • They talked of corrupt banks with shady lending practices and bogus foreclosures which target minority communities for the sake of greed.
  • They talked of how the recent foreclosure crisis has led to an unprecedented loss of wealth in black communities and increased levels of homelessness not just for individuals but for whole families.

So, according to their arguments, my squatter friend wasn’t just trying to ease his own family’s personal housing shortage. He was part of a much, MUCH bigger and more complicated picture. In honesty, they made some good points and they swayed my thinking. A bit.

More than anything, though, I was confused and conflicted. I started to wonder, “Does everyone else already see things this way? Has owning a little crumb of real estate shifted my perspective THAT far from the opinion of the proverbial ‘man on the street?’ Who do I think I am??? The Donald?

(Disclaimer: Please disregard that last reference. Not only has “President Voldemort” ruined our American democracy and our reputation among all the countries of the free world including AUSTRALIA???, he’s also ruined the go-to, metaphorical pop culture reference to a super-rich real estate investor mogul. I don’t even want to say his name anymore. I’ll need to check the Forbes list to see who’s next in line. But, I digress.)

I decided to look a little deeper into what my friends were telling me. I had to go all the way to The New York Times Magazine to find a comprehensive examination of squatting in our fair city. I checked out Ben Austen’s article “The Death and Life of Chicago.”

It focuses on The Anti-Eviction Campaign, a group founded in 2009 by Chicago housing activists Willie Fleming and Toussaint Losier. The group’s stated purpose is to put “home-less people into the people-less homes.”

The article said that in a given year, Chicago might be the location of over 60,000 vacant properties, mostly concentrated on the South and West Sides. This is at a time when the city has a shortage of around 120,000 units of affordable housing.

The article cites the National Fair Housing Alliance’s nine-month study which determined that banks put little effort into securing, maintaining and marketing vacant properties once they displace families and reclaim homes through foreclosure. Around 2011, almost 2,000 foreclosures in Chicago were temporarily halted when the lawyers for the bank admitted to falsifying documents. “We’re challenging amoral laws by breaking them,” J.R. said.

“At the vast majority of foreclosure auctions in Cook County there are no buyers, and the properties go back into the hands of the mortgage lender. But it is not in the lender’s interest to claim ownership of the property until it wants to make a sale. As long as the deed goes unrecorded, the lender that owns the building can avoid property taxes, vacant building regulations and fees, utilities bills, and essentially all accountability for the property.”

South Side Weekly April 14, 2015 article “Vacant and Abandoned: the housing crisis lives on in the homes it has emptied–and banks aren’t taking responsibility.”

The scale of problem is so big that it even involves huge public housing complexes. There’s one mention of a homeless man freezing to death inside a cardboard box a stone’s throw from countless vacant units constantly warmed by central heat.

The Anti-Eviction Campaign even takes the extra step of surveying current residents of certain areas to ask their permission to start assisting squatters in becoming their neighbors. In many cases, their requests are met with a resounding “yes.” The article said, A productive squatter had come to look less like a criminal or a freeloader than a potential boon to a fading community.”

Just like most other important issues, I’m seeing that this is certainly not black and white. There are many sides and variables and perspectives. My human side feels one way about it. But, I’ll be honest, something about this still nags at my property owner side (which I suspect some of the former residents of my buildings might argue is not human. JK). The question I’m currently struggling with is, “Are all properties and all neighborhoods created equal when it comes to the squatters taking possession?” I still haven’t decided how I feel about it yet but I’m still gathering information. When I figure it out I promise to let you know.


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