by Anders Corr



Urban Squatting

Urban squatter settlements are called "marginal housing" by many academics and government officials. But these settlements have grown profusely throughout the world to become central to the housing needs of many cities. The United Nations' World Housing Survey 1974 summarizes a portion of its data:

Current statistics show that squatter settlements already constitute a large proportion of the urban populations in developing countries. In Africa, squatter settlements constitute 90% of Addis Ababa, 61% of Accra, 33% of Nairobi and 50% of Monrovia. In Asia, squatter settlements form 29% of Seoul, 31% of Pusan, 67% of Calcutta, 45% of Bombay, 60% of Ankara and 35% of Manila. In Latin America, squatter settlements form 30% of Rio de Janeiro, 50% of Recife, 60% of Bogota, 72% of Santo Domingo, 46% of Mexico City, 40% of Lima and 42% of Caracas. Existing migration rates, especially in the less developed regions of Africa and Asia, indicate that these percentages will increase substantially."15

As the writers of the UN report expected, massive rural-to-urban migration in the '80s and '90s did increase the percentage of urban inhabitants that rely on illegal housing. Of the world's 5.8 billion people in 1996, the United Nations estimated 100 million were homeless and 1 billion lived in inadequate housing. These figures indicate an increase of 100 million inadequately sheltered people in the six years since the previous UN survey in 1990.16 By the year 2010, according to the World Bank, 1.4 billion people will live without safe water and sanitation.17 The urbanization trend continues unabated, even in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. In non-aligned Yugoslavia, a major housing deficit (507,000 dwellings in 1971) forced an increasing number to choose the option of squatting. By 1972, more than 1 million of Yugoslavia's 22 million inhabitants lived in squatted houses.18 With the break-up of that nation into small republics, the destruction of housing due to war, and the creation of massive numbers of refugees, urbanization has increased and with it the likelihood of higher squatting rates. In other socialist countries, as well, urbanization is stimulating the growth of squatter settlements. In Cuba, rural migrants are swarming into the Havana area, where press accounts estimate that up to one in every five residents is a squatter. In a city of 2.2 million, that makes over 400,000 squatters. Fidel Castro has taken stringent measures against squatting. One thousand, six hundred squatters left Havana after regulations went into effect in 1997 that gave local authorities "the power to evict, fine and expel any 'internal migrant' not formally registered to live in the capital." Any new migrants to the capital must first obtain permission from authorities.20 Caravans are groups of people who travel together in vehicles, similar to Grateful Dead followers in the United States or "new-age travelers" in England. The Dutch figures confirm the Netherlands as having one of the highest rates of squatting per capita in Europe, along with England and Germany. London had approximately 31,000 squatters in 1987,21 West Berlin had about 5,000 squatters occupying 180 buildings at a peak in 1982, and East Berlin had about 4,000 occupying 120 buildings in 1989.22

While urban areas undoubtedly offer the largest squatter populations overall, some people squat in even the smallest and least hospitable towns. In 1992, my own small corner of the world, Santa Cruz, California, had a population of only 50,000 and very few vacant houses. Even in this small, admittedly countercultural town, I personally knew more than two dozen people who were self-conscious squatters. I hear stories about squatters in the strangest of places: one guy up the road from a winery in Sonoma, California, who, to the distress of the landowner, built himself a teepee. One friend had to evict a squatter from her mother's cabin in a small New Mexico town. When I was three years old, even my mother and I squatted for a summer. We lived in an abandoned farmhouse in the middle of Missouri. If my anecdotal experiences are any indication, most communities in the Northern wealthy nations probably host at the very least a few squatters per thousand residents.

As a three-year-old squatter in Missouri and a nineteen-year-old squatter in Santa Cruz, I was an archetypal isolated activist. But individuals and campaigns have succeeded in wrangling substantial gains from society even by working in relative isolation. The following pages include struggles that enforced land reform or rent control and gained land or homes without extensive connections to other groups. But at the same time, these isolated campaigns continually fall prey to repression, guaranteed by local and international economic systems that value investment over the bare essentials of living. In the highly competitive international economic storm (otherwise known as "globalization") that is wreaking havoc at the dawn of the 21st century, governments are quickly and ruthlessly repressing land and housing movements to please international businesses all too ready to divert investments elsewhere.

To counter this repression, movements are building themselves ever larger. In Larzac, France, during the struggle against military base expansion in the early '70s, disparate movements joined the local farmers who faced loss of their lands. The closer that individual campaigns can come to a broad movement with extensive interconnections, the more they build a worldwide network of radical social movements. A well-organized worldwide coalition could make it increasingly difficult for investors and international bankers to pressure local governments to take repressive measures. The goal of any worldwide coalition must be to start and strengthen local campaigns and thereby make international investment contingent on organizers' demands. Only through a strong sense of mutual aid and solidarity can movements hope to defend themselves against what may now seem like inevitable repression. Only by mobilizing and bridging differences between every possible community, both within and outside of their countries, do movements have a chance to change not only the system of land and housing but the social and economic systems more generally.

This book promotes squatting, occupations, and rent strikes as an important form of access to desperately needed land and housing. It shows that communities that struggle for better conditions, often get better conditions. Although research in Brazil by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization found that "squatters had an income almost double that of other small rural producers,"23 squatting and rent strikes almost always provide inadequate housing with little or no security of tenure. Land occupations do not solve hunger on a long-term basis. The people who occupy land are the most desperate of the poor, people who hope that by choosing relatively unproductive land they might lessen the daily danger of eviction.

Long-term solutions to the land and housing crisis require a more permanent redistribution of wealth. Owner-occupied housing and land-to-the-tiller reforms, not squatting, are the long-term answer. Squatting is only a short-term strategy. "I always told tenants that a rent strike is only one tool and one organizing tactic in fighting against your landlord and should be viewed in that light," said Woody Widrow, a tenant organizer since the early '70s. "Too many tenants saw rent strikes as the goal. Rent strikes, squatting, and land occupations are all tools to be used in fighting for land and housing reform."24 For land and housing campaigns to succeed on more than a sporadic level requires building a worldwide or at least national social project with a realistic program that benefits society as a whole, a synthesis of right and left idealism that has yet to be adequately outlined after the perceived collapse of socialism. We need egalitarian economic and social systems, compassion for the neediest, a redistribution of wealth that takes historical injustice into account, and workers' control in the workplace. But we cannot afford to remain a small island of dogmatic leftists in a sea of mainstream ideas. In addition to knowing what to reject from the mainstream, we must also remain open to the possibility that we can learn some things from the London School of Economics, the editorial page of the New York Times, and the classical philosophers. The land and housing movements within these pages prefigure ideals that do not necessarily cleave to the left party line. These movements can achieve their goals to the extent that they and future movements grow and develop strong ties and joint programs with not only other progressive social movements, but broad sectors of mainstream society.

This book attempts to set aside the partisan political loyalties and rigid academic disciplines that color and determine the analysis of much social movement history. Instead, it presents the story of property struggle as much as possible from the perspective of the homeless or landless participant. Rather than chastising campaigns that stop struggling and "sell out" for concessions, this book notes that they achieved important goals. Rather than try to fit living, breathing, and unique campaigns into the template of an academic discipline, this book allows participants to tell their own story each movement has a new lesson. The book attempts to be useful for readers interested in how social change develops in history, how philosophical arguments work against an inequitable distribution of land, and how squatters and rent strikers act under the pressures of repression. Perhaps most importantly, it attempts to hone the knowledge necessary for direct action by the reader.

The lessons derived from studying the movements detailed in this book relate not only to land and housing campaigns, but to movements for social justice in general. If you are thinking about organizing a campaign yourself, or if you already have, consider the following questions as you read. These questions apply even if the campaign you are considering has nothing to do with land and housing. Who will help organize the movement? How can you use the media to further your goals? Are there any laws in your favor? Which laws will be used against you, and what are the possible penalties? What existing groups will support your campaign and provide participants? What history is relevant to your goals, and is it useful to broadcast this history during the campaign?

After thinking through these questions (which are unanswerable in any definitive way, so don't think too long), plunge into the struggle and learn by doing. Direct action is admittedly a frightening process due to its unconventional nature, and there will always be those who call it counterproductive. They may be correct in particular situations, and prudence requires careful consideration of naysayer viewpoints. But when landowners and other adversaries refuse to act upon petitions, letters, demonstrations, and other mild measures; when they insist on exploitation to the point of starvation or exposure; when they repress the fair and just requests of individuals; then direct action in the form of land occupation, sqatting, and rent strikes is often the only viable choice to further social development. "Peopleness manifests itself most dramatically when people risk their lives in struggle," writes veteran Japanese activist Muto Ichiyo.

When the people take to the streets, fight the police, expose themselves to danger, and help each other, the people's spirit becomes visible. We have seen this in Rangoon, Seoul, Kwangju, Manila, Beijing, Bangkok, and even Tokyo. Men and women, young and old, many meeting for the first time and by chance in the tear gas fog, find each other comrades.25
In these instances, the most outrageous, radical, and unexpected tactics usually have the best chance of success.


Introduction | Homes Not Jails | Battling the Banana Baron | Philosophy to Squat By | Tell It to the Judge | Violence and Cycles of Reform | Tactics and Mobilization | Conclusion





15. United Nations Department of Economics and Social Affairs. World Housing Survey 1974: An Overview of the State of Housing, Building and Planning within Human Settlements. New York: United Nations, 1976, p. 28.

16. United Nations Centre for Human Settlement. Shelter: From Projects to National Strategies. New York: United Nations, 1990; Hanley, Charles J. "Urbanized Planet Ahead." San Francisco Examiner, 5/26/96, p. A14. According to the the 1990 report, an estimated 1 billion people either lived under conditions of inadequate shelter or had no shelter at all. Total population growth between 1990 and 1996 was 9.6% (Wright, John W. The Universal Almanac 1996. Kansas City, MO: Andrews and McMeel, 1996, pp. 353-354). Compare total population growth with the 10% growth of inadequate shelter between 1990 and 1996, and it becomes evident that the rate of shelterlessness is slowly but surely exceeding the rate of population growth (0.4%). This is a significant percentage considering that it suggests that 400,000 more people became inadequately sheltered between 1990 and 1996 than was attributable to population growth.

17. Crossette, Barbara. "Hope, and Pragmatism, for U.N. Cities Conference." New York Times, 6/3/96, p. A3.

18. Pleskovic's essay documents the process of squatter expansion, government re- sponse, and squatter success. The appropriateness of Pleskovic's term "squatting" for the phenomenon of crne gradnje, or "black housing," in Yugoslavia is debatable, since "squatters" in Yugoslavia usually owned the land on which they built. The laws that they violated were not related to trespass, but rather to building codes and zoning regulations. However, because the common definition of property is "that which belongs exclusively to one" (Black, Henry Campbell. Black's Law Dictionary, Fifth Edition. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 1979, p. 1095), the imposition of regulations on its use could be considered expropriation of property, a gathering of land unto the state. In the context of environmental regulations, this concept is a much-debated one. If accepted for theoretical purposes in the case of Yugoslavia, then Yugoslavians who defied regulations were in a sense "squatting" public land. Rhetorical convolutions aside, the practical effect of squatting and crne gradnje were the same: both were subject to forced eviction and bulldozers.

19. Rohrer, Larry. "Cuba's Unwanted Refugees: Squatters in Havana." New York Times, 10/20/97, p. A6.

20. Cited in Glasser, Irene. Homelessness in Global Perspective. New York: G.K. Hall, 1994, p. 101.

21. Glasser, p. 101.

22. Interview with Werner Sewing. "Alternative Politics in West Germany." Our Generation, vol. 16, no. 2, Mar. 1984, p. 49. Also see Mayer, Margit. "The Career of Urban Social Movements in West Germany." In Mobilizing the Community: Local Politics in the Era of the Global City. Robert Fisher and Joseph Kling, eds. Urban Affairs Annual Review, vol. 41. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1993, pp. 158, 167.

23. Cited in New Internationalist, vol. 285, Nov. 1996, p. 12.

24. Widrow, Woody. Letter to the author. 8/19/96.

25. Ichiyo, Muto. "For an Alliance of Hope." In Global Visions: Beyond the New World Order. Jeremy Brecher, John Brown Childs, and Jill Cutler, eds. Boston: South End Press, 1993, p. 161.