Friday, December 26, 2008

stealth of nations

Hey, squattercity denizens. My apologies for having been less than attentive to the blog in recent months. I am continuing to post on squatter issues. But I've also started a blog on the global reach of the informal economy, the subject of the book I am writing now. You can find that blog at

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Finally, A Good Real Estate Deal: putting the homeless In foreclosed homes

A brilliant program from a Miami group vets homeless families and then moves them into foreclosed housing. The program is, at least technically, illegal. But no arrests have been made, and it seems a clearheaded way to prevent neighborhood deterioration while getting families desperate for housing into high-quality homes. FOXNews (yes, that Fox News) has the details.

"We're matching homeless people with people-less homes," Max Rameau, who heads Take Back the Land, the group organizing the move, told the Associated Press in a recent story. Rameau also has a blog at

From an anonymous comment on one of my previous posts, I see that Miami New Times broke the story last month.

(Mea culpa: I was in Lagos, Nigeria when the anonymous poster sent me the New Times story, and I only just got around to following up on this.)

Monday, October 13, 2008

the squatters we create

alJazeera Magazine offers a moving portrait of the mess that is Afghanistan today. The nation's capital, reporter Anand Gopal asserts, has become one large shantytown:

Kabul itself lies in tatters. Roads have gone unpaved since 2001. Massive craters from decades of war blot the capital city. Poor Afghans live in crumbling warrens with no electricity and often without safe drinking water. Kabul, a city designed for about 800,000 people, now holds more than four million, mostly squeezed into informal settlements and squatters' shacks.

Washington spends about $100 million a day on this war -- close to $36 billion a year -- but only five cents of every dollar actually goes towards aid. From this paltry sum, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief found that "a staggering 40 percent has returned to donor countries in corporate profits and salaries."

Gopal concludes with a message that could apply to all squatter communities around the world: "This is a war to be won by constructing roads, creating jobs, cleaning up the government, and giving Afghans something they've had preciously little of in the last 30 years: hope."

Saturday, September 20, 2008

the cliff dwellers quandary

The New York Times follows up on the cliff collapse in Manshayet Nasser, a sprawling Cairo neighborhood of more than one million residents:

The police have cordoned off the neighborhood; they don’t want any prying reporters, foreign observers or charity groups to get in. “It’s a crisis,” barked one state security agent, when asked why the area was sealed. A crisis for the government seems to be what he meant.

On Sept. 6 a huge piece of this cliff broke off and crushed the lives below, poor people living on the edge of the city. So far, 101 bodies have been recovered, but the true scope of what happened remains hidden beneath massive rocks that rest where they fell.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

2000 homeless after fire

A candle left unattended for a few moments sparked a fire that destroyed at least 600 homes and left 2,000 people homeless in the Foreman Road squatter neighborhood of Durban, South Africa. One man died in the fire and three other people are still missing.

Another tragedy due to the policy that prevents shack dwellers from having legal electrical service. What's more, though the municipality promised to install fire hydrants around the community four years ago, the work was never completed, and the neighborhood had just one communal water tap.

Abahlali baseMjondolo, South Africa's outspoken squatter movement, has scheduled a City Wide Shack Fire Summit at Foreman Road on Monday 22 September 2008. Now the meeting will take place in the ashes of Foreman Road.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

not acts of god

An astounding figure: on average, there are ten fires a day in squatter communities throughout South Africa. This fact comes from "Big Devil Politics," an important new report by Abahlali baseMjondolo, the squatter-run community organization that started in Durban. To understand these fires, Abahlali writes, you have to understand this: "Shack fires are not acts of God. They are the result of political choices." The report is necessary reading, written with contained fury. It is an indictment of the policies that have led to hundreds of deaths in South Africa's squatter communities every year.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Rock slide in Cairo shantytown kills 24 - Yahoo! News

An awful scenario: boulders the size of houses raining down on a shantytown in Cairo. AP has the details. But a significant news nugget is buried in the article:

1. "The reason the rocks keep falling is because there is no sewage system and their wastewater is eating away at the mountain," Hani Rifaat, a local journalist who has been following the issue, told AP from the site of the disaster.

2. Resident Mohammed Hussein said contractors have been working on shoring up the cliffs as they became increasingly unstable, but they could not complete their work until the government resettled the community below. "The contractor who is stabilizing the mountain asked the government to resettle everyone at least 32 miles from the mountain because he didn't want the rocks he was removing to fall on the people," Hussein told AP Television News. "The rocks are soaked with water and so are more brittle and prone to falling."

So, once again, squatters are victimized by lack of investment in infrastructure.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

charred remains

Eight people were buried this weekend after another disastrous fire in the Kennedy Road shack settlement in Durban, South Africa.

The municipality blames the squatters, who get drunk and knock over the candles. The squatters knock down that ugly slander. It is, rather, the municipality that is to blame, for its policy of refusing to allow electrification in the shack neighborhoods. And when the squatters pirate electrical service, the municipality dispatches the police to destroy the makeshift connections and arrest (and sometimes bludgeon) the offenders.

Here's a stark statement of the problem, from Abahlali baseMjondolo, the brave squatter mobilzation in eThekwini Municipality:

Let us be clear. People in houses [as opposed to wood and sheet metal shanties] also get drunk. Their children also like to play in the house. The difference is that they have electricity and so their houses do not burn when these things happen....The problem is not that we are stupid. We do not need training on how to avoid fires. The problem is that we do not have electricity. Electricity will save our lives. Most fires are caused by candles and paraffin stoves. If they don’t connect we must connect. If they will not connect us then they must not arrest and beat us for connecting ourselves. If democracy is for everybody then everybody needs to be safe in a democracy and we are doing the work of the government when we connect ourselves. When we connect ourselves we are making the democracy real. When we connect ourselves we are making everyone count the same. Anyone who says that electricity is a luxury that the poor do not deserve must spend one winter living in a shack and trying to survive the fires before they speak about what is a luxury and what is a necessity.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

blame the victims

The Johannesburg Government now blames squatters for the fires that periodically devastate their communities. Here's what a spokesman for Johannesburg Emergency Management Services told the Star newspaper about a fire this past weekend that destroyed 1,000 homes in the Denver hostel squatter camp in southern Johannesburg: "In illegal informal settlements there are a lot of social factors that come into play. High on the list is drunkenness... where a person drinks and forgets to put out the candle... or they might leave a pot cooking on a stove and go and buy beer again."

Anyone who has spent time in squatter communities or other informal settlements knows that drunkenness is no more prevalent there than in society as a whole. The greater issue, which the Durban-based squatter organizing group Abahlali baseMjondolo has articulated many times, is South Africa's continuing effort to prevent squatters from gaining access to electricity: "As usual the poor must be blamed rather than the system that denies people decent housing and fails to, even as a minimal measure, electrify the shack settlements."

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Calcutta wants to replace squatters with high rises

Another scheme to push out squatters, this time in Kolkata (Calcutta.) Apparently, the city government, recognizing that many squatter areas occupy valuable real estate in the center of town, has decided to allow multi-family reconstruction. This, of course, gives developers a massive financial incentive to drive as many as 1.5 million people from their homes. City Renewal, a blog maintained by people affiliated with the Howrah Pilot Project, gives a clear-eyed summary of the issues involved.

[thanks to Nila-kantha-chandra/Rama for sending this my way.]

Rwanda's Capital's Crime

Demolition in Kigali as the government has razed the centrally located squatter community of Poor Kiyovu (so called to distinguish it for neighboring Rich Kiyovu.) Thus politicians work hand-in-hand with developers, and the people suffer. I suppose the good news is that the administration did at least promise to reimburse people for their losses. But, as this blog post points out, many have not received anything.

Here's the nub of the issue: "It seems that the government wishes to engineer a city in which Kigali residents and delicate-stomached foreigners will no longer have to suffer vulgar displays of poverty in the city centre. Its a loss for the city. These people were a major part of the life of the city centre. A much better strategy would have been for the city to have improved the property rights laws and infrastructure in poor Kiyovu to promote its development. Shame on the City of Kigali."

(thanks, Maurice, for sending this to me.)

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Roma at risk

Silvio Berlusconi wastes no time. Italy has expelled 100 people after a sweep of immigrant squatter encampments, The New York Times reports.

See also: BBC and The Guardian.

The Guardian reports that the cabinet endorsed a new law that allows "confiscation of property let to illegal immigrants, a rule that could have instant and drastic effects on hundreds of thousands of foreigners known to be living in Italy without the right papers."

[a tip of the hat to Gabriel for pointing me to the links.]

Monday, May 19, 2008

deja vu all over again in South Africa

I don't mean to be snide. But some South African cities are reimposing some of the worst excesses of the apartheid era. That's what Marie Huchzermeyer, an architecture professor, argues in a recent issue of the newspaper Business Day.

In Durban, the legislature's policy of policing and fencing off of all vacant land and summarily evicting of any new land invaders, she writes, "reintroduces measures from the 1951 Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act, which was repealed in 1998."

She compares the determination to eradicate shack settlements, no matter the cost (and studies have shown that simply razing peoples homes and forcing them further out of town institutionalizes misery and makes poverty worse) with denying that the HIV virus causes AIDS.

squatting on the rise in the USA

It's a response to the sub-prime meltdown and the tragedy of foreclosures. People without homes while an enormous number of buildings are vacant. Reuters has details.

One sorry point about the article: it features no interviews with squatters themselves, but is almost entirely based on interviews with real estate brokers. This makes it seem like the squatters are manipulating the tragic situation for their own benefit. As if the banks and entities that have foreclosed are not. Some squatters may, indeed, be seeking to profit. But I'm sure there are others who simply need shelter.

To be, as Patrick Chamoiseau has written, is first and foremost to possess a roof.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Whose South Africa?

Le Monde Diplomatique offers a clear-eyed perspective on the inequalities and inequities of the new South Africa, with special focus on the squatter communities.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

So you want to squat...

A London service is publicizing the city's vast number of vacant buildings in the hope that people could squat them. The group features flyers and brochures that mimic real estate publications. Read about it in The Daily Mail.

[thanks to eagle-eyed Bryan of Subtopia for the link]

Friday, April 18, 2008

Istanbul destroys historic Roma community

Kristoffer Larsen, who is currently in Istanbul, is chronicling the municipal government's continuing effort to demolish Sulukule, a historic neighborhood in Istanbul that has been home to a Roma community for almost 1,000 years. He writes:

"They are tearing down houses randomly - 6 one morning - 3 the other day. The last week has been quiet - there are rumors among some people that the municipality are getting cold feet - but this is not confirmed. They are likely to carry on - despite the fact that no solution has been found for huge number of residents who are not able to pay for new houses.

There has been a desperate atmosphere some days - one lady started to destroy her own house (in which she has been living for 40 years, her whole life) because she knew that the buldozers would come the next morning."

Kristoffer took the photo last month, after one of the periodic demolitions.

On April 4, members of the US Helsinki Commission wrote to Turkey's Prime Minister R. Tayyip Erdoğan, expressing dismay over the organized bulldozing of the community. In a speech last month, however, Erdoğan was unapologetic: "Those criticizing the project will eventually say, 'We thank you for rescuing Sulukule from its ugliness and turning it into a modern place with restored historical streets.'"

Friday, March 21, 2008

a novel way to evict thousands

Just suspend the law. That's what the government of Chad did earlier this month. The edict of extraordinary powers meant that authorities in N'djamena, the country's capital, had no obligation to honor due process or any other rights.

The result: 1,000 families in poor neighborhoods around the city were evicted, and their homes destroyed.

"Under the presidential decree, public discussion of the evictions was banned and many key public defenders fled the country out of concern for their safely," the UN's Integrated Regional Information Networks news service reports. IRIN quotes N'djamena Mayor Mahamat Zène Bada as asserting that they now can build "schools and colleges, medical centres, libraries, sporting facilities, markets and bus stations."

Yeah, right.

With admirable restraint, IRIN points out that "it will be difficult start any projects as there are very few construction companies in the country due to the current insecurity, and there is questionable value of building libraries in a country where the majority of the population is unschooled and illiterate."

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Back to the 19th century

On Thursday, Feb. 14, police descended on the Kennedy Road Settlement in Durban and began ripping out electrical hookups. They ripped out pirated service, and they ripped out legal service. They dug up wires that had been run underground.

Kennedy Road is one of the shack settlements that is part of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a squatter organizing group which has been battling with the Durban municipality for some time now. Its members have been arrested, imprisoned, harassed, and hurt. Now, with no advance warning, the municipality is attempting drive squatters back to the squalor in which the poor lived two centuries ago.

Welcome to the new South Africa!

As Abahlali said in a statement, "Electricity is not a luxury. It is a basic right. It is essential for children to do their homework; for safe cooking and heating; for people to charge phones, to be able participate in the national debate through electronic communication (TV discussion programmes, email etc); for lighting to keep women safe and, most of all, to stop the fires that terrorise us....Why is the government sending the police to force us to go backwards? Development was supposed to be about moving forwards."

For more about Abahlali and their courageous work, you can find a short video here.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

House in a Slum? You Can't Afford It. -

Dilip D'Souza decodes Mumbai's mystifying housing market and the programs designed to aid squatters in this wonderfully honest article from The Washington Post.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Bangalore squatters protest

I missed this in late December: Squatters in Bangalore, who had occupied their community for two decades, protested after the municipality evicted them with no warning. They claim that the city sold off replacement housing rather than allocated it to them. The Hindu has details.

Friday, January 25, 2008

A sophisticated strategy in Manila

Philippine squatters have picketed the South Korean embassy, to protest a South Korean government-financed plan that calls for 50,000 families who live along the railroad tracks to be evicted. Manila's INQUIRER newspaper has the details. Sadly, the Korean Embassy refused to talk with the squatters or even receive a letter they were trying to deliver. The squatters say they're not against improving the railroad, but they want their rights to their homes respected and relocation plans to be developed. "Our only concern is the observance of the rights of the affected families," said Ted Añana, deputy coordinator of the Urban Poor Associates, which helped organize the demonstration.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

35 years and still no rights

The squatter community of Arnett Drive has been in the Reservoir Hills area of Durban for 35 years. Yet the municipality has launched a sudden and horrible eviction drive. It's an ugly reality of the new South Africa -- majority rule making life worse for the majority.

Update: A January 25 article from The Mercury (sadly hidden behind a subscription firewall on the web) reports that Abahlali baseMjondolo, the courageous Durban squatter organizing group, won a temporary injunction barring the municipality from engaging in more demolitions in this Reservoir Hills community. The interim ruling allows for a one-month reprieve. The matter will be back in court on the 21st of February.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A big year for the wrecking ball

This excellent article from Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper notes that governments in Mumbai, India and Istanbul, Turkey are set to demolish millions of squatter homes to make way for highrises, in a misguided attempt to modernize their cities.

In both cities, it seems like the government is using the rhetoric of improvement and redevelopment to shift land from being held by largely poor squatters to being owned by large real estate establishments. The impact on the squatters, it seems, is just collateral damage (see photo of Nehru Nagar in Mumbai).

Yet the article offers a modest way forward:

"The best plans generally let the slum dwellers themselves make the main decisions in planning their future. You should provide clean water, toilets, electricity, garbage collection and disposal, and maybe let people build their own houses if they can using materials that you can provide," says Aprodicio Laquian, the Filipino-Canadian planner who practically invented the idea of slum-dweller-designed urban rehabilitation in the 1960s and is now at the University of British Columbia.

"Eventually," Mr. Laquian says, "you want to make available a better sort of housing, a five-storey walk-up apartment, but planned according to the needs of the community, not by some central plan."

An amazing and simple statement of what ought to be the norm in urban development. Instead, it's a revolutionary thought. How many people need to get evicted before the world understands?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

gypsies face the boot in Istanbul

Another example of eviction via redevelopment. Istanbul wants to spruce up for its 2010 debutante outing as "European Capital of Culture" by flattening the ancient and historic (and, admittedly, run down) area called Sulukule, which is occupied principally by the Roma. The plan calls for removing the historic homes on the land abutting the 1600-year-old Theodosian Walls and building $77,000 townhouses. "We are buying the houses from the present owners and they can move into brand-new lodgings as soon as they are finished, and pay off the difference over 15 years," the local Mayor crows.

But Sukru Punduk, a Sulukule resident who opposes the plan, thinks the municipality’s aim is to clear the area of its current Roma inhabitants. "Look at the models they’ve made of the new houses, little model people carrying laptops, middle-class people, not people like us," he says. It's a logical suspicion, considering that half the residents of Sulukule earn less than 500 lira ($427) a month.

Oh, wait, perhaps Countrywide Financial and Citibank can come in and give these good Turkish citizens some no documentation subprime mortgage love, then foreclose on them and ....

What's even more suspicious is that the government is also seeking to destroy nearby Gulsuyu, a former gecekondu (squatter) neighborhood that was legalized two decades ago. Why push Gulsuyu residents out? Because that neighborhood occupies a potentially prime piece of real estate high on a hill overlooking the Marmara Sea.

Eurasianet has the sordid details.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

the new shantytown of people forced out of the shantytown

The post-election violence in Nairobi has pitted neighbor against neighbor. These former residents of Mathare, a shantytown with a history that goes back more than half a century, on the were forced from their homes and have become squatters on the nearby airforce base (photo from

Friends tell me that several swathes of Kibera were burnt, but they were hoping tensions would cool this weekend.

This much is sure: beyond finding a political solution, there's lots of mending to be done between neighbors.