“Where’s the house?” Trisha James asked, leaning forward eagerly. She couldn’t contain her urgency; living each day house-to-house in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods had taken its toll. The shelters. The overcrowding. The uncertainty of whether anyone would even open the door.
The friend’s small house where James was staying that day, during a record-breaking heat wave, had 10 adult occupants, a rotating cast of their children and no indoor plumbing.
Martha Biggs smiled at her friend knowingly. Both women had been evicted from Cabrini Green, the city’s now-demolished housing complex, and spent years as homeless mothers. She knew that James would like the house, a modest Bank of NY Mellon-owned home on the South Side that had yet to be completely stripped for parts and trashed by gangs. The team had already secured it.
Biggs and her right-hand man, John Newman, weren’t working for any social service agency. To get a house this way, you have to work for it — buy the locks, paint the walls, fix the broken steps, clean out the trash. Rally some teenagers to help you put up drywall, if necessary. You have to understand that this isn’t just about finding a place to live; it’s about fixing up the neighborhood, making jobs, changing the whole idea of housing. And then you have to pass the knowledge on: another house, another family.
In short, you have to join.
A housing liberation movement is brewing in Chicago. The idea is simple: Tens of thousands — possibly hundreds of thousands — of vacant, bank-owned homes are a large part of what is making the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago into semi-forsaken tracts ridden with crime and blight. These houses are so bad that Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently announced that he’d spend $4 million just to tear some down. Meanwhile, there are more than 20,000 homeless adults and tens of thousands of additional homeless youth in the city fighting through life as capitalism’s refugees. (They aren’t receiving any additional mayoral funding.) The supposed truism of supply and demand seems to have gone haywire. Many no longer recognize the banks’ claim to ownership. The only definition of these so-called assets that makes sense is their immediate capacity to serve as homes for families.
“This is how we can house the city of Chicago,” said Thomas Turner, who has worked with Occupy Chicago and was homeless before he liberated and renovated four homes since the summer began. When a local property owner saw what Turner was during, she donated three more.
“You know this economic situation isn’t getting any better,” he continued. “So just like Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, MLK — all the people that stepped in and made our lives better today, we’re working for — how do you say it? Our living aspects of life. It’s a domino effect — and when it all falls down, we’re going to have a big beautiful design.”
The liberation movement is organized into a loosely connected network of cells that collaborate — and compete — to see how many houses they can free from bank control and open for homeless families, particularly single women with children. There’s no official count of liberated houses in Chicago to date, but there are well over 25, maybe more than 50. The majority of organizers are themselves currently or formerly homeless, working under a variety of banners, including the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, a group that grew out of the Cabrini Green housing project, and Take Back the Land, a national network centered on making housing a human right. Other groups choose to operate under the radar of media attention (a choice I have respected by keeping participants and their actions anonymous). Some hold no organizational affiliation; they are just members of the community who see this work as the best hope to save their city.
John Newman, for example, has his pockets stuffed with red slips — receipts from the pawnshops where he has traded in his own possessions for money to buy locks and building materials. Martha Biggs is hiding his most valuable belongings in her own liberated home to keep him from pawning them, too.
“People need houses,” said Newman. “I’m a veteran, so I’m going to help people. If I have something, you have something, and then we got something together.”
A perfect storm in the Windy City
Since 2008, the housing liberation movement has been building nationally, with actions in Miami, Madison, Detroit, Raleigh, New York and other cities. Nowhere has it expanded as rapidly as in Chicago, though, where various factors have made it the leading place for home liberation. Firstly, 55 percent of the city’s adult African American men have been branded as felons for life, barring them from access to public housing and often private housing as well.
“I couldn’t live anywhere because of background checks,” explained one formerly homeless mother who now lives with her children in a liberated home on the South Side.
“Wherever I sent in a [housing] application,” she continued, “they said I was denied. Denied, denied, denied” — all because she was briefly incarcerated nearly 10 years ago. Convicted drug felons are explicitly prohibited from almost all public housing, and the Federal Fair Housing Act, which prevents various types of housing discrimination, does nothing to stop landlords from running background checks and refusing to rent to those with a rap sheet.
Secondly, in the last decade, the city has demolished almost the entire public housing stock under former Mayor Richard Daley’s “Plan for Transformation,” creating a wave of evictions that led to the formation of direct-action housing groups, such as the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, before the market even collapsed. And lastly, because Chicago is the most highly segregated large city in the United States, the racially-targeted subprime lending boom and subsequent crisis concentrated foreclosures on the south and west sides of the city, inciting a downward spiral for property taxes. This in turn contributed to school closures, widespread unemployment and the highest murder rate in the country.
The movement will not be televised
Housing activism is perhaps the issue in the United States right now that boasts the most plentiful direct actions:
truck-halting eviction blockades, sale-stopping auction disruptions and bolt-breaking house liberations. Even so, Chicago’s housing liberation movement is rare for its focus on scaling its work not through media coverage but through word-of-mouth recruitment among the city’s homeless and precariously housed. Many either eschew media coverage or simply consider it a waste of time — not out of fear of police repression. Rather, the spurning of media reveals a deeper goal to make these home liberations in and of themselves the solution, rather than symbols or ideas that might inspire solutions. The number one goal of Chicago’s home liberation movement is not to influence the dominant economy; it’s to create an alternative one.
Organizers are aware that eventually, when enough houses are liberated, this sub-economy could force change in the dominant one, just as the Black Panthers’ free lunch program prompted the government to serve free school lunches lest it concede that a radical movement could provide what the state could not.
“If I can put 100 people in 100 houses, when you think the government is going to say, ‘Damn, she doing something?’” said Biggs.
But in the meantime, the focus is on rehab, not reporters.
Which contracts really bind?
Housing activists around the country tend to focus on liberating bank-owned properties as the clearest example of the movement’s political analysis of decommodifying human needs like shelter. But in the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago, the on-the-ground reality of ownership is even more messy. There, both residents and banks habitually give up their ownership of properties, throwing houses into legal limbo. When vacant houses are littered with animal and human feces, marijuana, used condoms and empty white bags, when the walls are covered in gang signs, when neighbors inform a group of liberators that someone had been shot just the previous night in the backyard of one of the street’s abandoned houses, it doesn’t seem to matter very much what a given building’s legal status is.
The politics of occupying homes in these neighborhoods, therefore, is not only about decommodifying housing and ameliorating homelessness. It is also about recognizing the often overlooked social contract of neighborhoods, where one abandoned home can bring down the quality of life for everyone. During the housing crisis, millions were evicted for violating their mortgage contracts, but those evictions did not only punish the homeowners; they punished everyone around them. Perhaps the question, then, is not whether the banks had the right to assert their individual contracts through mortgage repossessions, but whether they had the right to break social contracts through physical eviction. Yes, the individual houses functioned as collateral for the loans, but the survival of the neighborhoods did not. There have been moments throughout U.S. history when the courts have ruled to break contracts, including both mortgage and property-ownership contracts, when the public welfare is threatened.
Even an afternoon’s tour of South Chicago will reveal that we are in one of those moments in which something will have to break. The city is cutting funding for shelters in order to spend millions tearing down vacant buildings. And at a time like this, a growing number of people are deciding that the most rational thing to do is — in the words of J.R. Fleming of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign — “play matchmaker to pair peopleless homes with homeless people.”