Fighting Evictions and Taking Back the Land

27 03 2010

Café Society will meet at Chicago Cultural Center on Wednesday, March 17.

Special guest Frank Edwards, a Rogers Park anti-eviction activist and ally to the Anti-Eviction Campaign, will kick-off this intimate, facilitated discussion.

The number of families displaced by foreclosure continues to grow. “Chicago weathered a third year of economic turmoil in 2009 with an average of one new foreclosure filing every 22 minutes,” according to a report released by the organizing, policy, research, and training group National People’s Action.

The statistics for renters aren’t much better. “More than half of Chicago renter households have become ‘rent-burdened,’ a term dubbed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for renters who spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. In 2007, an estimated 53 percent were rent-burdened, up dramatically from 40 percent just seven years earlier,” according to the 2009 State of Renters Report released by the Metropolitan Tenants Union (MTU).

Simultaneously, more and more affordable housing options are becoming obsolete. Under the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation, an increasing number of Chicago’s public housing residents are being displaced. A recent study of evictions in Milwaukee found that the crisis is disproportionately affecting women of color.

Erik Eckholm in The New York Times reported, “The study found that one of every 25 renter-occupied households in the city is evicted each year. In black neighborhoods, the rate is one in 14. Women from largely black neighborhoods in Milwaukee constitute 13 percent of the city’s population, but 40 percent of those evicted.”

Most people are aware that foreclosures and evictions can have devastating impact on families. However, many often overlook the heavy emotional toll of evictions on youth, who are forced to change neighborhoods and schools or sometimes face imminent homelessness.

A young woman living on the North side of Chicago found herself at odds with her apartment’s management company over her ability to stay in a section 8 apartment after her mother’s death. She had become the legal guardian of her mother’s grandchildren. According the blog post, “Federally-funded company evicting orphans” on Chicago Now, “Rosetta died just before Labor Day, and when the management office told her she’d have 10 days to get out, Erica sent the kids to live with some other relatives on the West Side and enrolled them in school there. The kids didn’t want to go, but Erica didn’t have much choice.”

A group of Chicago activists has come together to demand a stop to evictions and assert that people have a human right to housing. Under the slogans “The Banks got Bailed Out, We are Getting Put Out,” and “Housing is a Human Right,” the Chicago Anti-Eviction campaign is using and advocating a direct action approach to challenge the housing crisis. Drawing inspiration from the South African Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign and organizations such as Take Back the Land in Miami, the campaign has organized blockades of evictions and is envisioning new ways that foreclosed homes could be used by communities.

Max Rameau of Take Back the Land, an organization that moves homeless families into foreclosed homes recently argued in the magazine Left Turn:

“It is immoral for human beings to be forced to live on the streets while perfectly good structures stand vacant, sometimes just blocks away. This moral outrage is only compounded by a bailout which extracts billions of dollars from people who need housing for the benefit of corporations which get to keep both the money and the vacant homes, allowing the bank to, effectively, sell the home twice… In October 2007, Take Back the Land, a Black led, Miami-based grassroots organization, began identifying vacant government owned and foreclosed homes and moving homeless people into them, without permission from the banks or the government.”

This strategy raises all sorts of questions about private property and home ownership. An anonymous commentator to a piece on evictions appearing in The Chicago Tribune writes, “Living rent free in a home that is no longer yours if wrong. If you are renting a home and the landlord let you down I suggest a lawsuit for failure to uphold their part of the contract. Pay your bills people, stop living outside your pay range! Create a budget and stick to it.”

Megan Cottrell, in a recent post on True/Slant, describes the dilemma as she sees it:

”We have these two huge ideas – a property based economy and a human rights plea for help – butting heads in a very practical circumstance. Tuesday night, the Anti-Eviction Campaign volunteers tried to put Lenise back in her apartment, they told me. But the district police commander arrived, telling them it would be a felony charge if they tried to do so. When I arrived, police were watching the front and back door, making sure no one tried to go inside. As one of the advocates put it, isn’t it a strange day in America when the police come to defend the rights of an empty building, rather than a family put out in the cold?”

In response, one reader commented: “It scares me that you want housing to be some sort of communal resource. My house is my own, and it is not yours. I am a landlord. I wouldn’t do it for free. People like me expand the market for available housing and give people places to live. To read your article I am some sort of villain. Once everyone gets free food and housing who is going to produce the free food and housing?”

In what ways are housing rights human rights? How can families facing foreclosure and eviction defend themselves? How are youth affected when families are forced to leave their homes, and in what ways can they fight back? How can activists and campaigns opposing evictions make a difference? What do you think of strategies that involve blocking evictions or squatting? What other kinds of affordable housing options should be implemented to protect families and communities from the financial crisis? What should be done with the growing number of foreclosed homes?

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