Photographer: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Real Estate

What Detroit Needs Now: More Squatters

As vacant homes drag neighborhoods down, squatters help hold them up, says a scholar who spent five years on the scene.

A century-old farmhouse sat vacant in the Brightmoor neighborhood of Detroit. The neighbors feared it would be picked apart by the scrap merchants who strip derelict houses of copper pipes, aluminum siding, and other valuable materials.

They needed a steward of community values to move into the house and help bring order to the lawless block. But with Detroit's large supply of cheap homes, finding a buyer was a long shot. So they advertised for a squatter

Wait, what?

When most Americans think of squatters, if they think of them at all, it's a picture of chaos—loud music and hard drugs, poverty and danger. Detroit has those kinds of squatters, too, said Jonathan Pommerville, a longtime resident of Brightmoor who squatted for five years before buying his own house from the owner for $1. 

“We have squatters who are hustling hookers or hustling drugs. Those are the people we don’t want,” he said. “The squatters we would typically be supportive of are people who have a long-term plan for being part of this neighborhood.”

In addition to hipster homesteaders and hardened criminals, there's another kind of squatter making use of Detroit’s empty homes, said sociologist Claire Herbert—people who simply can’t afford to pay for traditional housing. This group includes those who have continued living in their homes after foreclosure and homeless people seeking shelter in abandoned buildings. 

Herbert, who just completed her doctorate at the University of Michigan, spent the past five years interviewing squatters and their neighbors. One woman she encountered in her research, which she presented over the weekend at a meeting of the American Sociological Association in Seattle, reported that by hanging blankets over doors and windows and lighting candles, she can bring the temperature of her bedroom up to 50 degrees.

What's unusual about Detroit, Herbert said, is that many traditional property owners have become comfortable with squatters as caretakers after the owners have walked away—challenging the conventional view of squatters as a blight on a well-ordered neighborhood.

As Herbert puts it, “Squatters mow the lawn.” 

The housing bust in the middle of the last decade acted as an accelerant for the suburban migration and declining industry that had taken hold in Detroit by the 1950s. Collapsing home values and a deep economic recession chased more homeowners away. Scavengers stripped vacant houses, and arsonists burned others down.

Today, only about a fifth of the homes that once graced Brightmoor are still standing, Pommerville estimates, and only a fifth of those are occupied—a rough figure that now includes the old farmhouse. (Over the past year, Pommerville, 39, has stepped into that void as a sort of video vigilante, patrolling the neighborhood with a camera and recording what he calls “humpers and dumpers,” men he says use the neighborhood to solicit prostitutes and construction contractors who discard waste on empty lots.)

For centuries, exclusive ownership of land has been considered essential to its productive use. In the context of modern housing markets, a homeowner whose life savings are invested in a house is more likely to apply his or her energy to raking leaves, attending a community board meeting, or coaching Little League.

A vacant home in the Fitzgerald community of Detroit.

A vacant home in the Fitzgerald neighborhood of Detroit.

Photographer: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

In Detroit, it's the opposite. Many owners have abandoned the land and abdicated tax obligations, while squatters are acquiring quasi-ownership of property by demonstrating responsibility.

"The conditions in Detroit are an opportunity to see how people relate to property without a market logic,” Herbert said. “This is not about taking care of a home because you can sell it in 20 years and retire off the money.”

The squatters of Detroit aren’t the first to push back against assumptions about ownership. In the U.K., there’s a framework for authorized squatting, whereby property owners give permission to squatters, who in turn agree not to hold the owners liable for the condition of the property. In the U.S., it's not unusual for homeless populations to seek shelter in abandoned houses, though formal agreements are probably less common, Herbert said.  

But attitudes toward squatters in Detroit largely buck the way U.S. cities have handled urban decline.

One weapon against urban blight has been demolition, in which vacant homes are treated like an infection. Proponents of those efforts point to research showing that blighted blocks can harbor criminals, increase stress, and lower property values. The U.S. Treasury has spent hundreds of millions of dollars allocated by Congress for foreclosure relief to help Rust Belt cities tear down empty homes. Cities and counties hardest hit by urban blight have created land banks to manage abandoned properties.

These attempts to reclaim blighted land for community members tend to be top-down. In Philadelphia, for instance, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, a 190-year-old organization founded to help gentlemen farmers trade seeds, runs a pioneering program to turn blighted blocks into small parks. In Baltimore, the National Forest Service has led a similar effort.

Over the past few years, the Michigan state government has moved to bring Detroit's vacant parcels back under control, passing laws to crack down on squatters, scrappers (as the people who strip houses for building materials are called), and urban farmers alike.

Whether Detroit has the means or the inclination to enforce those laws is an open question. In the course of her research, Herbert interviewed a Detroit police commander who told her that even with more resources, he’d be disinclined to target squatters.

“I certainly wouldn’t use them to go in there and encumber people to tear down urban farms and gardens on a technical violation of ownership,” he said.

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