Commentary on Preserving Abandoned Buildings

by Darian Henderson

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has stated, “Nationwide, there are 6.5 million low-rent units available to accommodate 11.2 million low-income renters. 4.7 million renters cannot find an affordable place to live, the widest gap on record.” A recent Housing and Urban Development (HUD) study found that 5.3 million unassisted, very low-income households had “worst-case needs” for housing assistance in 1993 (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1996). [Worst-case needs refer to those renters with incomes below 50% of the area median income who are involuntarily displaced, pay more than half of their income for rent and utilities, or live in substandard housing.] This figure is an all-time high and represents an 8% increase over the 1989 figure. The same study found that in 1993, almost 95% of those with worst-case housing needs paid over half of their income for housing.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, in 1995 requests for housing assistance increased in 19 of the survey cities. Applicants for public housing in survey cities were forced to wait an average 17 months from the time they applied until the time they received assistance. The average wait for Section 8 housing was 40 months; for vouchers, the average wait was 39 months. In 20 of the surveyed cities, the waiting list for at least one assisted housing program was so long the cities actually stopped accepting applications for that program. Cleveland has actually stopped providing family public housing, Section 8 and vouches.

As the housing environment continues to decay, we as a society are called to action and forced to be more creative and bold in our approach to answering the immediate housing shortages for our nation’s citizens. There are community development corporations which are traditionally non-profit low-income developers. In Cleveland we have the Cleveland Housing Network, Habitat for Humanity, Eden Development Corporation, to name a few.

These are all viable options; however, not even these efforts appear to be enough to curb the tide of housing shortages. Interestingly enough, an avenue of obtaining housing as old as mankind’s existence is showing signs of regaining popularity in cities and countries all over the world. An alternative to standard housing development is called “squatting.” According the Random House Dictionary, squatting is defined as “The act of settling on the land, usually public, without title or legal right.” A squatter is defined as “one who has no legal agreement as far as his/her living situation.”

In the United States squatting became an issue in the early to mid 1880’s. During this period of history, Americans traveled throughout the midwest and west, usurping unsurveyed, not-for-sale land as fast as they could migrate. The migratory movement ultimately resulted in the passage of the 1841 Pre-Emption Act. This policy entitled squatters to ownership of these usurped lands.

Though the passing of this policy silenced some of the unrest in relation to needs for land, the citizens, mainly farmers, were still unhappy with the government’s policy on land ownership. The farmer felt the prices were land were too high, hence the homestead movement was born. This movement “festered like a sore,” ultimately being the root cause of the Homestead Act of 1862.

In May of 1862 Congress enacted this policy into law, allowing persons 21 years of age or older, the head of a family, or a citizen or alien intending to be a citizen to obtain title of 160 acres of public land, as long as they remained on the premises for over five years and, in the process, improved the property. The Homestead Act remained law for 114 years until 1976, when the law was deemed out of date except for Alaska.

In contemporary society the avenue of squatting has taken on an interesting twist. It most often is utilized in the framework of a community of individuals who desire a place of habitation. The contemporary squatting movement is based on organization, sweat equity, willingness to take control of one’s own life, and a desire to do for oneself.

According to Eviction Watch, a publication out of New York, “Squatting is democracy in action. Given that there is no outside authority in the running of a squatted building, it is important that the authority of the group be respected by all and functions smoothly.” Squatting as a major movement has lost some of its vigor since the mid 1980’s, when an organization called ACORN launched a campaign to obtain affordable housing.

According to ACORN’s historical document on the internet, “Noting that economic upheaval had forced many people to default on mortgages, ACORN sought to place needy people in the resulting vacant homes. This required forceful and illegal (though logical and moral) seizing of the properties.” ACORN released to the media advertisements which read, “Do you need a home?” It explained the personal commitment needed to move into a vacant, poorly kept home and refit it for comfortable living.

 They also made a point to let these individuals know they could be arrested if the local authorities refused them legal occupation. Interestingly, the response to the advertisement was high by the public. What also was interesting was the community responded favorably to the squatter movement. According to ACORN, “Vacant houses meant opportunities for rape, drug dealing and arson. Residents of communities in which houses stood vacant wanted responsible neighbors to inhabit and maintain the homes. Before squatting sites were approved, neighborhood approval was obtained. Moreover, neighbors frequently participated in the entry and refitting of houses.”

ACORN made sure their movement was widely publicized, as this was part of the political dimension of squatting. Three steps need to be taken as the process evolved. First, the local officials had to give their blessing to such a project. Second, ACORN attempted to legalize the act itself. Third, local officials were asked to subsidize the costs of squatting in an effort to improve the quality of life for the squatters and their neighbors. The ACORN movement was a very organized, politically motivated campaign. It also ended almost ten years ago. Today, squatters are much more private and more oriented toward establishing a place to habitat.

 The last noteworthy event to occur in relation to squatting was on 13th Street in the Lower East Side in May of 1995. The New York City government spent $3 million dollars to evict 100 people from two buildings which had been refurbished and transformed into a communal squat.

 According to Eviction Watch, “Squatting offers a viable alternative to housing because it allows people to procure a home through their own efforts, even if they have little money. At a time when the government has neither the vision nor the will to solve housing problems in this country, we are taking matters into our own hands. Inspired by our own belief in the resources of the individual and the strength of the community, we are trying to create a living example of how society can be improved.”


Here in Cleveland, the city commissioner’s office books state that by the end of September of 1996, there were 626 condemned buildings (homes/larger buildings) in the city of Cleveland alone. Approximately 1/3 of these buildings are then sold to refurbishing companies, non-profit, and for-profit corporations and companies. This leaves 2/3, or approximately 400 buildings that are destroyed this year alone in the city of Cleveland.

 According to Cleveland State University School of Urban Affairs, the total number of commercial and residential lots in Cuyahoga County total 506,182 in 1995. The number of commercial lots that are vacant is 3,692 in 1995. The number of vacant residential lots is 27, 649.

Editor’s Note: For more information about squatting, check the internet. The address for ACORN is Back copies of Eviction Watch from New York City are available. There are also small advocacy groups that are actively working with squatters in your community.

 Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #18, November-December 1996