With Advocates’ Help, Squatters Call Foreclosures Home

Published on
by
The New York Times

With Advocates’ Help, Squatters Call Foreclosures Home

by
John Leland

With their furniture in storage, Mia Dennis, Brandon Brown and their daughter, Amelia, sleep on mattresses in their family's illegally reclaimed home. (Maggie Steber for The New York Times)

MIAMI - When the woman who calls herself Queen Omega moved into a three-bedroom house here last December, she introduced herself to the neighbors, signed contracts for electricity and water and ordered an Internet connection.

What she did not tell anyone was that she had no legal right to be in the home.

Ms. Omega, 48, is one of the beneficiaries of the foreclosure crisis. Through a small advocacy group of local volunteers called Take Back the Land, she moved from a friend's couch into a newly empty house that sold just a few years ago for more than $400,000.

Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said about a dozen advocacy groups around the country were actively moving homeless people into vacant homes - some working in secret, others, like Take Back the Land, operating openly.

In addition to squatting, some advocacy groups have organized civil disobedience actions in which borrowers or renters refuse to leave homes after foreclosure.

The groups say that they have sometimes received support from neighbors and that beleaguered police departments have not aggressively gone after squatters.

"We're seeing sheriffs' departments who are reluctant to move fast on foreclosures or evictions," said Bill Faith, director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, which is not engaged in squatting. "They're up to their eyeballs in this stuff. Everyone's overwhelmed."

On a recent afternoon, Ms. Omega sat on the tiled floor of her unfurnished living room and described plans to use the space to tie-dye clothing and sell it on the Internet, hoping to save some money before she is inevitably forced to leave.

"It's a beautiful castle, and it's temporary for me," she said, "and if I can be here 24 hours, I'm thankful." In the meantime, she said, she has instructed her adult son not to make noise, to be a good neighbor.

In Minnesota, a group called the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign recently moved families into 13 empty homes; in Philadelphia, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union maintains seven "human rights houses" shared by 13 families. Cheri Honkala, who is the national organizer for the Minnesota group and was homeless herself once, likened the group's work to "a modern-day underground railroad," and said squatters could last up to a year in a house before eviction.

Other groups, including Women in Transition in Louisville, Ky., are looking for properties to occupy, especially as they become frustrated with the lack of affordable housing and the oversupply of empty homes.

Anita Beaty, executive director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, said her group had been looking into asking banks to give it abandoned buildings to renovate and occupy legally. Ms. Honkala, who was a squatter in the 1980s, said the biggest difference now was that the neighbors were often more supportive. "People who used to say, ‘That's breaking the law,' now that they're living on a block with three or four empty houses, they're very interested in helping out, bringing over mattresses or food for the families," she said.

Ben Burton, executive director of the Miami Coalition for the Homeless, said squatting was still relatively rare in the city.

But Take Back the Land has had to compete with less organized squatters, said Max Rameau, the group's director.

"We had a move-in that we were going to do one day at noon," he said. "At 10 o'clock in the morning, I went over to the house just to make sure everything was O.K., and squatters took over our squat. Then we went to another place nearby, and squatters were in that place also."

Mr. Rameau said his group differed from ad hoc squatters by operating openly, screening potential residents for mental illness and drug addiction, and requiring that they earn "sweat equity" by cleaning or doing repairs around the house and that they keep up with the utility bills.

"We change the locks," he said. "We pull up with a truck and move in through the front door. The families get a key to the front door." Most of the houses are in poor neighborhoods, where the neighbors are less likely to object.

Kelly Penton, director of communications for the City of Miami, said police officers needed a signed affidavit from a property's owner - usually a bank - to evict squatters. Representatives from the city's homeless assistance program then help the squatters find shelter.

To find properties, Mr. Rameau and his colleagues check foreclosure listings, then scout out the houses for damage. On a recent afternoon, Mr. Rameau walked around to the unlocked metal gate of an abandoned bungalow in the Liberty City neighborhood.

"Let the record reflect that there was no lock on the door," Mr. Rameau said. "I'm not breaking in."

Inside, the wiring and sinks had been stripped out, and there was a pile of ashes on the linoleum floor where someone had burned a telephone book - probably during a cold spell the previous week, Mr. Rameau said.

"Two or three weeks ago, this house was in good condition," Mr. Rameau said. "Now we wouldn't move a family in here."

So far the group has moved 10 families into empty houses, and Mr. Rameau said the group could not afford to help any more people. "It costs us $200 per move-in," he said.

Mary Trody hopes not to leave again. On Feb. 20, Ms. Trody and her family of 12 - including her mother, siblings and children - were evicted from their modest blue house northwest of the city, which the family had lived in for 22 years, because her mother had not paid the mortgage.

After a weekend of sleeping in a paneled truck, however, the family, with the help of Take Back the Land, moved back in.

"This home is what you call a real home," Ms. Trody said. "We had all family events - Christmas parties, deaths, funerals, weddings - all in this house."

On a splendid Florida afternoon, Ms. Trody's dog played in the water from a hose on the front lawn. The house had mattresses on the floors, but most belongings were in storage, in case they had to leave again.

"I don't think it's fair living in a house and not paying," Ms. Trody said.

She said the mortgage lender had offered the family $1,500 to leave but was unwilling to negotiate minimal payments that would allow them to stay. She said she and her husband had been looking for work since he lost his delivery job with The Miami Herald.

In the meantime, she said, "I still got knots in my stomach, because I don't know when they're going to come yank it back from me, when they're going to put me back on the streets."

The block was dotted with foreclosed homes.

Three of her neighbors said they knew she was squatting and supported her. One is Joanna Jean Pierre, 32, who affectionately refers to Ms. Trody as Momma.

Ms. Pierre said Ms. Trody was a good neighbor and should be let alone. "That's her house," Ms. Pierre said. "She should be here."

Ms. Trody said that living here before, "I felt secure; I felt this is my home."

"This is where I know I'm safe," she added. "Now it's like, this is a stranger. What's going to happen?"

Even without furniture or homey touches, she talked about the house as if it were a member of her family.

"I know it's not permanently, but we still have these couple days left," she said. "It's like a person that you're losing, and you know you still have a few more days with them."

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