DETROIT ― The heat going out in the van was the last straw. Pregnant and living in her vehicle with her four kids in the fall of 2013, Rebecca Fritz began a desperate, strategic search for a place to crash before winter hit.
Fritz, who had previously been living in a suburban domestic violence shelter, had called around to shelters, but they always seemed to be full. So she drove around looking for vacant, unsecured houses that hadn’t yet been ransacked by scrappers. Then she’d sneak in at night to inspect. Next came a look at property details on Zillow, using the Wi-Fi at McDonald’s, and finally a county records check for delinquent taxes ― meaning, Fritz determined, that the owner had likely given up on the property and her family would be less at risk of being discovered.
Fritz considered about a dozen houses before choosing a modest 1920s five-bedroom house on the city’s west side. She changed the locks, blacked out the windows and quietly moved in. The most attractive feature of the home, which had no heat, was the fireplace ― those first few months, Fritz and her kids spent nights curled up in blankets in front of the fire they fed with wood hauled from nearby alleys. When it was really cold, they’d go to her dad’s, a longtime squatter in an abandoned house heated by a wood-burning stove.
Fritz rigged a makeshift shower using a kiddie pool and found an oversized sink in the garbage that she could use for cooking and washing clothes. She installed a circuit box and ran wiring to the first floor so they could run electric heaters, learning as she went.
Even without having to pay rent, Fritz has struggled to afford necessities. She takes housecleaning gigs, but can’t reliably get to the suburbs, where jobs are more plentiful, without a car. She also juggles work with taking care of her kids and rehabbing the house.
Her difficulty finding stable employment and housing led her to activism. She’s protested the city’s foreclosure epidemic and water department’s shut-off policy for low-income residents ― which brought United Nations scrutiny ― through grassroots groups like Detroit Eviction Defense.
“At eight months pregnant, I was scrubbing floors. A few of my friends, once they realized I was serious about what I was doing, they helped me get a dumpster to get the garbage out,” Fritz said. “I knew as an activist that sometimes when we push from the bottom, especially in emergency situations, things like this can be possible.”
Squatting To Survive
Traditionally ignored by the city and often tolerated by neighbors, squatters occupy more than 3,000 homes in Detroit, according to the Detroit Land Bank Authority, a public agency that manages the city’s abandoned properties. Squatters frequently go without running water or heat in neighborhoods that have seen little of the investment animating the city’s downtown core.
Detroit has a tangle of different conditions that make squatting a possibility, said sociologist Claire Herbert: The city has more than 43,000 vacant homes, according to research group Data Driven Detroit, and 1 in 3 families is living in poverty ― plus there’s a lack of city resources for both property regulation and housing assistance.
An assistant professor at Drexel University, Herbert lived in Detroit for five years researching illegal property use. She recently published two papers on squatting. She focused on survival squatters (people who take refuge in abandoned homes for emergency shelter) and holdover squatters (renters or former owners who stay after foreclosure). In Detroit, squatting is one form of precarious housing on a spectrum that includes street sleeping or doubling up in an apartment, said Herbert.
“There are some squatters who in a sense ‘choose’ squatting because it allows them to buy their kids food,” Herbert said. “A lot of them have jobs, but they’re still so poor they can’t afford rent and to live.”
Shelter facilities haven’t kept up with the changing demographics of the homeless population, said Tasha Gray, executive director of the Housing Action Network of Detroit, which coordinates the different shelter agencies in the city. They tend to have openings for single men but not enough beds for women and families.
“I know that we’re turning people away,” Gray said. “Maybe [squatting] is not the greatest resource but it’s better for them than nothing at all … but because [squatters] are not always coming into the system, it’s hard for us to make a case about the need for additional resources.”
Keeping Blight At Bay
The city has lost two-thirds of its population since its 1950s peak, and despite a frantic rate of demolitions in recent years, the housing stock hasn’t declined at similar rates.
So when one house on a block goes vacant, blight can spread to neighboring structures like a cancer. Residents sometimes try to contain vacancies on their blocks by adopting empty houses, urban planning professor Kimberley Kinder details in her book DIY Detroit: Making Do in a City Without Services. This can be anything from hanging holiday decorations, moving the trash cans weekly or painting fake interior scenes on windows they boarded up themselves.
Some residents go a step further and use vacant property to create a community resource. Back in 2008, Mark Covington was tending to three vacant lots on his block when he decided to plant a community garden to stop people from illegally dumping their trash. Kids started showing up to help out, and 10 years later three lots have turned into 23, with hundreds participating in different programs at Covington’s nonprofit, Georgia Street Community Collective. The community garden has turned into a full-fledged urban farm, with a few dozen kinds of vegetables, fruit trees, goats, chickens and a bee colony.
Squatting can be another way to breathe life into abandoned homes. Of course, squatters are not always welcome. In some neighborhoods, legal residents are trying to keep them out. They have expressed anger at squatters trashing houses and selling drugs or bringing other criminal activity to their doorstep, including violence. But according to Herbert, those cases don’t match many squatter-neighbor relationships.
“I wanted people to know I’m not just a squatter. I’m trying to make this a home.”
The city’s vacancy and rampant speculation invert the normal assumption that ownership is the pinnacle of neighborhood care. In the absence of city enforcement, Detroiters use their own gauge to informally regulate illegal property use ― what Herbert calls an “ethos of care” ― so if squatters contribute to the community, neighbors are more likely to welcome them.
Some officials Herbert interviewed for her research encouraged responsible squatting. “You’re going to have squatters, might as well be good ones,” one police officer told her. Another cop confronted squatters on his block; instead of telling them to leave, he made them mow their lawn.
When Fritz moved into a mostly occupied block where neighbors keep an eye on each other, she first focused on making the interior livable. But as soon as the cold weather broke, she started planting flowers and trimming bushes.
“I wanted people to know I’m not just a squatter,” she said. “I’m trying to make this a home.”
In exchange, Fritz said, her presence on the corner makes it safer for the kids who walk to school through her alley.
From Squatter To Homeowner
From age 17 to 34, Fritz was homeless more than a dozen times, crashing in the woods, a storage facility and an apartment building basement.
“My kids up to that point hadn’t had any stability. This is the only home that Honesty’s ever known,” Fritz said of her 4-year-old daughter.
But squatting is still fraught with insecurity. Children’s Protective Services caseworkers kept showing up. The owner tried to evict her. Eventually, the house was tax-foreclosed in 2015 and it became the property of the Detroit Land Bank Authority, leaving Fritz holding her breath again.
Through her activism connections, Fritz got wind of the Land Bank’s experiment to sell homes to squatters. The BuyBack program started with a pilot in 2015, aimed at squatters who had previously been legal tenants or owners of their homes, had family connections to property, or had been paying utilities or fixing their homes. After paying $1,000 upfront, participants attend homeowner education workshops and must pay property taxes for a year.
Fritz had the receipts and pictures to prove she’d been rehabbing her house. She scraped together about $400 and crowdfunded the rest to enter the program in March 2017. This August, nearly five years after she moved in, she got the deed to her home.
A Hollowed-Out City
One in three Detroit properties ― about 145,000 ― has gone through tax foreclosure in the last 15 years. In the last five years, more than 30,000 occupied homes were put in the county auction and sold to the highest bidder ― often speculators scooping up multiple properties ― bringing in millions in revenue for Wayne County, which contains Detroit.
Officials have slowly begun to implement systemic changes to stem rampant foreclosure, as increasing evidence emerges to back up what activists have been saying all along: Under state law, many foreclosed owners should have had lower taxes or could have been exempted from paying them altogether.
Starting in 2014, the city began transferring vacant tax-foreclosed properties to the Land Bank in bulk to better manage abandoned buildings. Now the agency controls more than 60,000 vacant lots and 30,000 homes, according to Dispositions Director Reginald Scott II. It also unwittingly became a major landlord with a hands-off approach that’s angered some neighbors who live by Land Bank squatters and decaying homes. Others complain that the Land Bank is holding onto properties and only offers a small fraction to buyers.
“We do not have the resources to secure every one of our properties. It would just be virtually impossible,” Scott said. “We are the true owner of last resort.”
Georgia Street gardener Mark Covington said the sales process has improved from the days when he’d try to buy vacant lots and get shuttled from one clueless city office to another. Last year, GSCC was finally able to buy from the Land Bank six of the lots the group had worked for nine years, and it is authorized to buy another nine once it’s raised the necessary funds.
Covington said it was a relief to start taking ownership, easing fears that a developer might swoop in to capitalize on or destroy what he and his neighbors have built. “I think it’s more important that individuals and small, grassroots organizations do [community development] because they’re on the ground,” he said. “Their hands are in the dirt. They know what’s happening in the neighborhood.”
A Precarious Future
Scott works to shrink the Land Bank’s inventory with a variety of programs, including BuyBack. It has identified 800 occupants so far who qualified to start the squat-to-own program, and 360 individuals have signed deeds. Only four dropped out before finishing.
The Land Bank has identified about another 1,400 squatters who don’t meet the program qualifications. It’s unclear what will happen to squatters who stay. Scott stressed the agency’s “people-first approach” and said it is also working with nonprofits to rehab and rent properties to current occupants. That initiative has struggled, with an early partner evicting squatters improperly and selling some of the homes purchased from the Land Bank at a profit.
The program’s strategy for addressing housing insecurity is progressive in some ways, Herbert said, though she questioned whether it could be a true long-term solution without efforts to address broader economic issues for low-income families, for whom homeownership can be a major financial burden. She suggested the program would ideally require less money upfront and give occupants longer to become financially independent, while offering assistance with repairs and employment search ― similar to the “housing first” model. In Fritz’s case, ownership is not a panacea, and her water was shut off recently after she was unable to pay her bill.
She doesn’t see squatting going away in the near future but is concerned that as revitalization continues and the housing market strengthens, the city may crack down on squatters without providing alternatives ― like the water department changing its policy to require a deed or lease agreement to get water turned on.
“There’s something really messed up happening in the city right now ... which is the increasing criminalization of squatting and demonizing those who do,” said Michele Oberholtzer, who helps tenants buy those diverted auction homes through her work with the United Community Housing Coalition.
“We have homes without people and people without homes. It does not make sense, and we have to find a way to put the two together,” she said.
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