Inner City Homesteading

   Inner City Press began in the South Bronx in 1987, helping homeless and doubled-up families join together to fix up abandoned buildings and make the housing they needed.  The ICP Homesteaders’ Association soon grew to over 200 families, fixing two dozen buildings, in the Bronx and Harlem.  (For an account of the ICP Homesteaders' early struggles, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barry Bearak, click here.  Beginning in late summer 2002, the possibility of some different homesteading news arose; here's a link to a foreshadowing Voice). While ICP's work has expanded, including into a Fair Finance Watch, we remain committed to providing information on homesteading to people in other cities and countries, where low income communities are full of abandoned and vacant buildings and land.

2005: It's time to think beyond cooptation. For example, the U.N.'s Campaign for Security of Tenure. A sample book: “Housing Microfinance: A Guide to Practice,” Kumarian Press, 2004, including chapters about housing microfinance in the U.S., for "progressive housing,"which is defined, at page 190, as housing built up incrementally by self-help: "it is a work in progress." The book projects that "the U.S. population will expand much faster than those of other advanced industrialized countries -- from 281,000,000 in 2000 to as much as 550,000,000 by 2050... The United States will resemble developing countries much more than most of Europe and Japan, which are experiencing a population bust. Where and how will all these new Americans live? New approaches to housing offer the potential to face these challenges." We are exploring such new approaches, rather than the same-old, top-down, mediated ways...

Click here to contact us, and here for some articles on ICP's work. Further down on this page you'll find an overview and links.

    Some homesteading background: The Bronx Homesteaders’ early struggles, c/o Shelterforce.

  And see the New York Times of May 31, 1998, "Homesteaders, Nearly Homeowners;  After Hard Work and a Break, a Building Is Almost Theirs," reporting on the steps toward ownership taken by the residents of one of the Bronx "privately-" owned homesteading buildings ICP has worked with.

   Even where government opposes these grassroots initiatives, there are “common law and statutory” protections that homesteaders can use. The most general is the concept of adverse possession, formalized two thousand years ago by the Romans. In brief, if a person lives openly, in so-called “hostile possession” (we always loved that) for a period, usually ten years, on the land of another -- this person can not easily be removed, and can at times come to own the property. The reasoning is that land should be used, or, ownership should be clear. Take your pick.

    Many states and cities have formalized this common law doctrine into their laws, with provisions for the long-time occupant bringing a lawsuit to “quiet title” and take ownership of the land. Before the ten year period is reached, some states have laws mandating that even occupants, or so-called squatters, must be taken to court before they can be evicted.

   Here in New York City, the government took over tens of thousands of buildings for unpaid taxes, and then simply let them sit, for decades. The idea behind homesteading is not seizing another’s property, but putting unused property to use, in a housing emergency.

   ICP members have, in the course of their Community Reinvestment Act work, been traveling increasingly around the country, and have seen cities with even more abandoned buildings than the Bronx used to have. Newark, New Jersey. Detroit, Michigan. Philadelphia. Chicago. Washington. Los Angeles. Many of the vacant homes are eminently fixable, making clear the need for and feasibility of a nationwide campaign, akin to what homeless activities did in the late 1980s. But the (or our) idea behind homesteading is not pleading with the government to do something -- it is local people in need of housing taking action, in their own communities, to create housing and build better communities. As the ICP Homesteaders conclude, “Juntos Podemos” -- “Together, We Can”.....

  Review of “Homesteading in New York City, 1978-1993: The Divided Heart of Loisaida,” by Malve von Hassell (Bergin & Garvey, Westport, Connecticut, Contemporary Urban Studies Series), 1996.

       This is an interesting book, based on an anthropologist’s “field work” (that is, voluntary Saturday homesteading) with the “legal” (and slow) homesteaders sponsored by the Lower East Side Catholic Area Conference (LESAC). Ms. von Hassell notes the slowdown in Lower East Side homesteading by 1993, the near-extinction of the homesteaders’ coalition, RAIN, and the “disengagement” of LESAC. What she mentions, but does not emphasize enough, is the city’s housing agency’s role in limiting this form of homesteading: the agency mandated that no one move in until the building was entirely finished, sometimes after eight years of work. Truly low income people could not participate. The housing agency, HPD, set maximum limits on how many hours a month people could work on the buildings.

     The newer forms of homesteading are mentioned in the book (see, e.g., pages 155-157), but not analyzed. The struggle, however, continues...

  The N.Y. Times of September 19, 2002, quoted Carol Abrams, spokeswoman of the city's housing agency, that HPD "would consider" the Inner City Press Homesteaders, "but after we see how this works out." The "this" referred-to is HPD's "legalization" of 11 buildings on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, announced August 19, 2002. The Inner City Press Homesteaders have inquired into the specifics of that legalization; the Times' 9/19/02 article reported that "as the details began to filter uptown, often inaccurately, squatters in buildings not covered by the agreement wondered what it would mean for them."

     Such wondering has been inevitable. The N.Y. Post of August 21, 2002, covering the Lower East Side legalization, reported that HPD "hopes to work out an agreement with Inner City Press Homesteaders, whose members occupy nine Bronx and one Manhattan building... 'We are prepared to work with those 10 others. We wanted to do this deal first and work out the kinks,' department spokeswoman Carol Abrams said."

    Less than a month later, the Times asked Ms. Abrams, Would the city look the other way in the meantime? "That's to be determined," she said. So let's get this straight: the NYC housing agency legalized 11 buildings on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but seeks to preserve its "right" to try to evict buildings in the South Bronx and El Barrio?

      The Village Voice of September 3 also quoted HPD's Carol Abrams: "'We're dealing with this on a case-by-case basis,' says HPD's Abrams. 'Sure, it may be precedent-setting in the case of Inner City Press, but there's really nothing much in the way of squatter buildings beyond that,'"

     What these articles (and HPD, apparently) miss is that the number of abandoned buildings in New York City is not limited to the 524 cited by the Times. There are many more buildings that are vacant but still technically privately-owned, although no taxes have been paid on them in years. The buildings have been abandoned by their previous owners, and the city's housing agency could and should allow a program for their sweat-equity repair, by low-income people in need of housing. Inner City Press has raised this, including in the 9/3/02 Village Voice and since.

     As a matter of journalism, or credit-where-it-is-due (a topic missed by the Times' piece; click here for reports of Inner City Press' work enforcing the Community Reinvestment Act), it must be noted that the Lower East Side legalization story was broken by City Limits, whose Aug. 19, 2002 Weekly ran an ICP quote, with which we'll close: "If there's a new openness, there's no reason it should be confined to the east side of Manhattan."    This will be updated, in 2005.  Until the update(s), for or with more information, contact us.

   A sampling of earlier periodic updates:

March 27, 2000 -- USA Today of March 20, 2000 assembled a list of American cities with the most abandoned buildings. While cities such as New York, Atlanta and Pittsburgh declined to provide data, here are the rankings: Philadelphia -- 27,746; Baltimore -- 15,000; Houston -- 8,000; Detroit -- 7.500; Kansas City -- 5,000; Indianapolis -- 3,400; San Antonio -- 3,000; Jacksonville -- 2,800; Louisville -- 2,200; Mobile -- 2,009; Los Angeles -- 1,800...

May 3, 1999 --  The Michigan state legislature is considering an Urban Homesteading law, which would allow low and moderate income families to buy abandoned houses for as little as $1, if they can fix the homes up within five years. Perhaps not surprisingly, the initiative is supposed by both Democrat and Republican legislators. For Republicans, it represents a cutting of red tape, and creating incentives for people to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” The proposed legislation would also allow cities to create “Housing Freedom Zones,” where people could build homes that would not have to comply with housing codes, but only be deemed “decent, safe and sanitary” by the state Department of Consumer and Industry Services.

   This could be a nationwide model, for cities, like New York, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Wilmington, and Washington D.C., with thousands of abandoned housing units. Detroit, for example, has over 39,000 abandoned homes, including 6,224 that the city government currently intends to demolish. New York City, where land values are surging, has taken to evicting homesteaders under the claim that their improvements have not been certified as safe. Given that New York currently has a Republican mayor and governor, these officials might (be made to) want to examine the Michigan legislation...


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