On Sept. 26, housing activists and organizers from Philadelphia Housing Action declared victory after the city agreed to allow 50 previously unhoused families who took over a number of buildings to live in vacant, city-owned housing through a community land trust.

The deal came about after months of standoffs between activists and the city over homeless encampments, evictions, and occupied houses. Nationally, experts are warning of a looming housing crisis. The federal government has thus far only offered up a rent moratorium. Activists are calling for more direct action, and many may benefit from emulating those in Philadelphia and the international squatter movements that came before them.

Let’s start putting people in these empty houses. We’ve got boarded up properties everywhere.

Jennifer bennetch

Back in 2016, Jennifer Bennetch, a founding member of Occupy PHA (Philadelphia Housing Authority) and an activist with Philadelphia Housing Action, started keeping a list of vacant homes. That same year, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia released a report saying the city lost one-fifth of its low-cost housing between 2000 and 2014. After the coronavirus pandemic hit the city, the need for housing only became more dire.

“Women were being told there was no room [at shelters],” Bennetch said. “People were reaching out and I was saying I have this list.”

So, Bennetch and other organizers thought, “Let’s start putting people in these empty houses. We’ve got boarded up properties everywhere,” she explained. They moved a family into the first house on March 23, the same day the city evicted people from a large homeless encampment in spite of CDC guidance. Eventually, the network of activists helped families occupy 15 vacant houses that were owned by the city. 

Activists in Philadelphia entered the houses wearing reflective vests with buckets and work trucks. “There’s so much gentrification, [people in the area] probably assumed we were developers,” Bennetch said. 

In the United States, the poor outside of urban areas lack many of the anti-poverty programs that exist in cities. Poverty in the United States is already being “suburbanized.” 

Long before Bennetch and her fellow activists started moving families into vacant houses, squatting movements allowed vulnerable people to gain a toehold in cities internationally.

Currently, about 6,000 squatters are occupying 53 buildings in São Paulo’s city center, according to Camila D’Ottaviano, a professor at the University of São Paulo who works closely with squatter activists. 

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In São Paulo, there are two types of squatters, those who occupy vacant buildings in the city center and those who hastily construct flimsy shelters in the periphery, unsure of how long they will be able to stay.

The organizing in Philadelphia echoes a strategy used by Brazilian activists for over 20 years, Brazilian researcher Fernanda Jahn-Verri explained. In São Paulo, squatters will quietly move into an unoccupied building so as not to tip off neighbors who may call the building owner or police. After 72 hours, if the owner wants the police to evict the squatters, they will need to get an order from a judge. The legal procedures property owners are forced to pass through give the squatters time to dig in and prepare their next move. The protections lie in Brazil’s laws on the social function of property, according to Jahn-Verri. 

“Property has to fulfill a social purpose,” Jahn-Verri said. “When we have properties left vacant and [landlords] speculating to increase property value, theoretically, authorities in Brazil may take control of this property.”

The city may even buy the building from its owner and give it to the squatters. This is a rare outcome but D’Ottaviano said there are five buildings that became public projects and another two the municipality bought after squatters took them over. Even in the public projects, “[Squatters] are living in a very precarious way. And all the other squatters, most of them are in the process of eviction,” said D’Ottaviano.  

Even with seemingly progressive laws, Brazil’s legal system does not always support squatters.When an eviction case comes to court, D’Ottaviano said, “Judges say the right to individual or private property comes before the right to social function.” But, she argued, “if a building is empty for ten years, it doesn’t have a social function. Families could live there and give [it] social function.” 

 Though judges are not often transferring ownership rights to squatters, they do frequently rule squatters cannot be forced out until the city provides them with adequate housing, leaving squatters in an in-between state. They are not forced out but also do not receive all the law could allow for.

To D’Ottaviano, judges can do more to stop property speculation and house the homeless. 

“We do have the laws, but they are not being used by the judge,” D’Ottaviano said. “We must teach the judges.”

Like the squatters illegally building in the periphery of São Paulo, squatters in Turkey built gecekondu, a word used to describe a shantytown usually on public land. Gecekondu literally means ‘built overnight.’ The local press often shares stories of fires and death due to poor construction in these neighborhoods, but the buildings are a crucial source of housing in cities where recently built, expensive apartments sit unoccupied

Burcu Senturk lived in an Ankara gecekondu while researching her book “Urban Poverty in Turkey.” Senturk wrote that after the 1980 coup, during which the military cracked down on leftists and Kurds in Turkey, “The leftist movement disappeared in gecekondu neighborhoods and people became afraid to come together and act collectively.” Without the previous political activism, neighborhoods lacked unified resistance. Under current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, large-scale urban transformation projects bulldozed or transformed many gecekondu.

Elsewhere, squatters in Berlin remain active, including a dozen retirees occupying a community center. But even in a city where squatters are almost a trademark, housing costs are rapidly rising. 

Stateside, activists are engaged in direct actions, even if they aren’t squatting. The Los Angeles Tenants Union uses a rapid response system that sends activists to eviction sites where police have been forcing out tenants in spite of so-called eviction protections. Once activists arrive on site, they try to mediate between tenants, who often aren’t aware of all their rights, and police, who often tell tenants to figure it out in court.

“The landlord says to a cop, ‘I own this property. You’re going to enforce my property rights.’ There is no corresponding set of rights when I say, ‘I am a tenant and I want you to enforce my right to housing,’” Marques Vestal, a member of the Los Angeles Tenants Union, said.

The Iowa City Tenants Union provides support to renters when dealing with landlords, mostly over surprise charges and withheld deposits, according to Outreach Coordinator Jason Counts. “[Renters] will get most of their deposit taken away, if not all of it, over charges that are ridiculous. You’re talking about $300 to replace smoke detectors, light bulbs, and general cleaning.”

He said the union is focusing on arming tenants with information about their legal rights rather than occupying houses.

Bennetch, however, thinks the victory in Pennsylvania could be a model for housing activists around the country.

“We can turn this into a national effort,” she said, adding that it would require “direct action, knowledge [of the laws], and a great deal of persistency.”

Clare Busch

Clare Busch is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta. She began working in journalism in Istanbul, Turkey, for local Turkish papers. She went on to receive a master’s in Journalism and Near Eastern Studies from New York University. Clare’s work has appeared in publications like the New Republic, Los Angeles Times, and Al Jazeera, among others. Her twitter is @Clare_Busch.