Thursday, March 26, 2009

squatting in the states

Law Professor Eduardo M. Peñalver offers a sensible take on squatting in the U.S., in an essay published in Slate.
On the supply side, local governments should penalize owners who stockpile vacant housing, perhaps by imposing increased property tax rates on properties left vacant, and by moving aggressively to seize vacant properties when the owners fall behind on paying those taxes. On the demand side, governments should expand homesteading programs that permit and help low-income people to take over vacant housing—but only after it finds its way into city hands.
These are noble proposals and I hope people move forward with them.

There are some pragmatic difficulties, though. In the 80s, a number of community groups fought to get New York City to pass anti-warehousing legislation that would have denied rent increases and pushed other penalties geared to preventing owners from deliberately holding apartments and buildings vacant during a housing crisis. We couldn't even get the bill to a public hearing. That's because the real estate lobby is highly organized and fights fanatically against these kinds of efforts. The industry essentially argued that any attempt to penalize warehousing of vacant units was an attack on property rights. The tax penalty Peñalver proposes may also be a difficult fight, as property tax legislation often has to be authorized at the state level.

Still, I would love to see cities hard hit by both vacancy and foreclosure move in this direction. Laws against warehousing and programs to encourage urban homesteading make sense.


Anonymous said...

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rn said...

Anon: Thanks for the very perceptive response. It's high time for a much larger "open house" movement in Detroit and all across the country.

Coyote said...

Property rights that dehumanize society and abridge the rights of people to live simply are an abomination. How did we ever get to the point where the defense of fee simple property rights takes precedence over people living in cardboard boxes?

Laura said...

I am reading an excellent and very well written, fairly straightforward book on property rights right now:

On Private Property: Finding Common Ground on the Ownership of Land
by Eric Freyfogle

Most of his argument is to re-tool our concept of private property rights over land, but it is easily applied to dwellings as well. It busts some myths about the notion of strict private property rights and argues for a more flexible regime of rights and obligations, thinking about the greater common good, etc.

I think this is what we need to be pushing in terms of a frame shift in the face of the foreclosure crisis.


rn said...

Hey Laura:

I know Eric Freyfogle's 'The Land We Share,' which also provides some alternative thoughts about property. Joseph Singer has also written persuasively on this issue.

As I mentioned in my earlier response to 'anon,' I would urge an organized city policy of squatting in places like Detroit, Indianapolis, Flint, etc., where abandonment and the foreclosure crisis are creating a vacant city.

In slightly less ravaged locales, the arsenal of tools outlined by Freyfogle may help.

But here's the bottom line from an organizing perspective: Conceptual change is long term. The crisis is now. So what can be done on a local level (where local people have the most leverage) to help people in need and to minimize the damage to the urban fabric?