The first part of a speech given at the Howard Zinn Bookfair in 2014 on Take Back the Land, Occupy Our Home, and burgeoning housing movements after the financial crisis.
Speech at Howard Zinn Bookfair 2014 11/15
Speech given as part of a panel on the AK Press book, The End of the World as We Know it?
The key points that were brought up were about de-regulation. We have an idea about deregulation in the mortgage servicing, and in mortgage lending. Obviously in trade generally, in Wall Street trading commodities. And that had a dramatic effect on housing to begin with, but that wasn’t where housing issues started, and it’s not really where people who have been dealing with housing began dealing with them. It’s where, generally, middle-class white people talking about them. When it started affecting people in my parent’s neighborhood, then suddenly foreclosure was a real risk. Homelessness was a real risk. Eviction was a real risk. It was a real thing that they saw with their friends happening, but for most people in the U.S. eviction, foreclosure, displacement, is a regular process.
Obviously, in a period since 2008 there have been about 20 to 30 million people displaced through forcible eviction, foreclosure, and things like that. So we are talking about a massive wave in the first world. But at the same time we are not talking about something that is fundamentally new. What’s different a little bit about now is that the tactics and the ideas have become common sense for everyday people in a way that they weren’t before. So, there have been a lot of great books written about squatting history, and squatting movements, especially in Europe, but also here in the west coast and the rest of the U.S. And I think there are a lot of great things to learn from those, but a lot of them are very tied to subcultural movements. Very tied to punk rock and art scenes, things like that, which are fine but the kinds of things that we started seeing in 2008 and again in 2010 really took it out of that sphere. It wasn’t just people who wanted to go into squats for ideological reasons or because they wanted a certain kind of community. It was people that were going in and challenging placed on a fundamental need, and that was a real different thing.
So what I write about in the book is mainly Take Back the Land, and we were working with that in Rochester, New York. Rochester is kind of like other “rust belt” cities. Detroit, Buffalo, and it soft of has the same effect in places like Phoenix, Miami, Central California, and other places. Where by, though foreclosure hit it hard, everything was hitting it hard. For years, and years. It is the center of Xerox and Kodak . Kodak used to employ over 100,000, skilled manufacturing, things like that, now less than 10,000. The entire town has been kind of decimated in that way.
And so we would go onto city blocks and we would look at, ok, there are thirty houses on this block and six of them have people in them. Twenty are empty because of foreclosure. A large majority of foreclosure stay empty for more than eighteen months. So we are talking about houses that are destroyed at that point. We are not recouping these houses; they are not usable. Within 48 hours, nine times out of ten, the copper is gone, the wiring has been stripped, things like that. So the idea came out of Miami where people were first occupying large areas for tent cities, but then looking at the large rates of foreclosure and then just going into the housing and saying “Can we open these up?” Can we just walk in, can we fix the plumbing, can we at least aid in families moving in? What it came down to was, yeah, it was relatively easy to do that on a sustainable scale there. So we were doing the same thing in upstate New York. At the same time, we were trying to match that with doing the more traditional eviction defense/foreclosure defense work. Where by we stand and do an escalation strategy, where we see a family going through foreclosure, they decide they’re not going to leave their home. They kind of commit to that. Then go through the process of challenging the bank, challenging the mortgage lender, and going up against them with a show of community force and saying, “You’re not going to be doing this.” Connecting with neighbors going through similar circumstances. Trying to create blocks where by people aren’t going to be leaving their homes. Eviction Free Zones. And so those end up being two sides of the coin.
What might have seemed like a very radical solution starts to seem very common sense when people see empty houses on their block. When they’re being threatened foreclosure. When they see an entire system collapsing around them. And a system they really have been trained to trust. For working class people there are really only a couple ways that we hold wealth. One is in their pensions and the other is in their mortgage, both of which have been under serious attack. The one place that people though, Ok, this is my “island of wealth,” this is how I am able to maintain myself in the middle class, that is now receding. It’s not a home that they can count on anymore. So this idea of just moving into these houses makes perfect sense. And at that point, once it makes perfect sense, once it is the most common sense solution to a problem, it’s the one that people tend to take.
So what we saw was people organizing together and moving into houses, and then defending each other. Once they are in the houses, are they going to leave that house? How long do they sustain the house before they become a part of that community? When we were starting this, before Occupy, we had about, maybe 9-10 locals around the country that were working on Take Back the Land “type” projects. With Occupy happening and the idea of occupying the space, living in the protest, so to speak, became the sexy idea and the thing that people really wanted to participate in, Occupy Our Homes and similar things going on, I would get on conference calls and there would be forty or more locals. In a span of six months. Cities would have several locals. While a lot of that has waned, as anything you’re branding with Occupy has a shelf life, but the interest in housing hasn’t. And the interest in focusing on those issues hasn’t. And what we have kind of gone back to is a lot of the real long-term strategies that we have to deal with, because our movements were here before Occupy. They may have seen a spike, but that’s not a spike that necessarily maintains itself. So we have to look now at what is going to keep these here for the long-term. What are the issues that are going to do that?
One of the things we wanted to take out of Take Back the Land, but also working with different neighborhood specific organizations is instead of looking directly at, “How can we deal with subsidies? How can we deal with foreclosure relief? How can we deal with public housing, section 8, or increasing those.” Shelter funding, things like that. Not that those are negative goals. But how do we bring it back to the neighborhood itself.
One thing Deric[Shannon] often says is, I’m paraphrasing to a degree, but if you’re in a social movement and its directed towards the state subsidies, like more money for this, more social programs for that, the State can take it away. What we want to try and do is if we can get the State reforms that’s great. But let’s do it from the neighborhood. Let’s do it from the collective action of the neighbors. And once you have the organization that’s in the neighborhood, even if those things are taken away, you still have that organization. You still have those bonds between neighbors. You still have the ability to self-manage the neighborhood if need be. Even if there is a giant collapse of some sort, you have the ability to put that together. And that’s the really important thing.