Nationwide Vacant Property Takeovers Throughout May 2010

This blog post is a "CALL TO ACTION". Get involved in the ongoing effort to truly make housing a human right both in this nation and around the world. There is something for everyone to do.

On January 28th and 29th of this year, about 40 people from all over the country met in New York City at the office of the Center for Constitutional Rights ( to discuss doing vacant property takeovers across the nation throughout the month of May. The meeting was organized by Take Back The Land (, an organization which has been successful in acquiring vacant property for use by homeless people and in preventing evictions in Miami, FL. Other organizers include Picture the Homeless ( of New York City, the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI -- and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP -- All of the aforementioned groups presented testimony to Raquel Rolnik, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, during her visit to the U.S. from October 23rd to November 8th, 2009, with the latter 2 having organized her visit. The meeting in New York was for the purpose of planning one of the many actions that will take place across the nation until housing is truly a human right -- in virtue, not just in name. The visit by Ms. Rolnik is seen as the official beginning of the Right To Housing Movement in the U.S. Her visit is not by any means the end-all/be-all of housing rights, but rather a signature event. It is our ongoing actions that antagonize, aggravate and speak truth to the powers that be, while agitating the masses and calling them to action, which will actually usher in the change that we need in this nation.

During the first day of meetings, we began by discussing the work that we are doing in our respective locales. However, (due largely to my prodding, I admit) the conversation quickly turned into an exchange of philosophies and paradigms as well as a discussion on styles and approaches -- radical vs. diplomatic. It became apparent that there was a diverse mix of people from a variety of backgrounds in the room. Nonetheless, we decided that all ideas, styles and approaches were pertinent, with each one having its proper time, place and usage. Thus, our differences didn't divide us, but rather made us a stronger coalition.

It was announced that Take Back The Land, being a Miami-based organization, would also lend its name to this national effort (which hopefully won't create any confusion for people). However, it is important to note that Take Back The Land is not in the business of organizing local efforts. They are simply a point of contact for those hoping to get involved in the May actions and future actions that will take place across the nation. It is incumbent upon local organizers to know local laws, politics and problems and to plan accordingly. Local organizers must find the right fit for their respective municipalities.

The approaches that we discussed can be categorized in 3 ways:

Illegal and
Political. (LIP).

Legal: Various organizations such as NLCHP and NESRI continue to draft legislation whose aim is to make housing as a human right a reality and which they hope to have passed, though the process could take in the neighborhood of 3 years (a length of time that is much too long for those in need of immediate housing). Other legal efforts include making people aware of their existing rights as well as legal, non-antagonistic ways in which they can receive or remain in housing. (See Marcy Kaptur: .)

This part of the discussion would've been incomplete without there having been some mention of legal services for those who might get arrested while fighting for the human right to housing. we decided that such services would need to include the defense of those who've been arrested as well as legal observers during the planned actions -- people who can "police the police" and serve as witnesses in court who would testify to any abuse of power by the police.

Another interesting point was that of property ownership across state lines. As it turns out, many companies and corporations have their headquarters in one state while owning property in other states. Many local laws require that the owner of the property file a complaint in order for someone to be charged with trespassing. If the owner of a vacant property in Washington, DC for example is a corporation whose headquarters is in California, it is not likely that the corporation will press charges against an individual for trespassing on their vacant property, as that can be time-consuming and a waste of legal resources. Assuming that local laws don't allow charges to be pressed without a complaint from the property owner, a squatter could presumably continue to reside at the vacant property without fear of arrest. And local squatters' rights might transfer ownership of the property to the squatter after a certain amount of time.

Illegal: The term "illegal" seems, to me, to be somewhat inappropriate to use in this context (but, it provides the necessary vowel for the acronym "LIP"). It is unfitting in the sense that the government's failure to house people in this land of plenty -- not people's efforts to acquire safe, affordable, adequate housing -- should be considered illegal. Thus, the term is relative to your perspective -- whether you choose to treat housing as a commodity which should go to the highest bidder or as a necessity which should be afforded to every human being.

That said, we discussed the basics of vacant property takeovers: how to find vacant properties; surveying the property; gaining entry (which can actually be done legally in some cases); having people occupy large numbers of vacant apartments, condos and houses and drawing media attention to a small number of the properties that are taken over. (It is important for me to reiterate that it is incumbent upon local organizers to know local laws and the risks that they are about to undertake and to govern themselves accordingly.) Due to the sensitive nature of such information, I will not expound on those methods, but will advise you to familiarize yourself with your local laws if you plan to participate in any such action. You may also contact any of the aforementioned organizations for advise on such matters.

Throughout the course of the meeting, people emphasized that: "No positive change has ever been brought about without there being people who were willing to take risks". Some historic examples include the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, Gandhi and Medgar Evers. More recent examples include Cindy Sheehan "the mother of peace" and Dr. Margaret Flowers who has been arrested for her efforts to bring about universal health care. The list goes on.

A video was shown depicting police violence against poor people in New Orleans who were seeking enforcement of their right to return to their old neighborhoods in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (Their affordable housing project was due to be torn down and market-rate housing built in its place.) At the meeting there was an apparent dichotomy of those who are willing to risk arrest and those who aren't, but agreement that we are all working toward a common goal -- housing as a "realized" human right.

Those who choose to break unjust laws should bear in mind that, in spite of the apparent morality of their actions, they can still go to jail for them. Whether it is right, wrong or indifferent, the law is what it is. It is seemingly monolithic. And judges are hired to interpret the law and hand down sentences, not change the law. That said, I would advise against a person taking any unnecessary risks. There is no point in going to jail for what can be accomplished while operating within the parameters of the law. Furthermore, it is wise to obtain critical mass before doing anything radical, as the media doesn't consider just one person going to jail to be a "sexy story". Besides, when any small number of people who are part of a nascent movement go to jail, it only serves to end the movement, not grow it.

Political: The interesting point was made that it is the illegal actions -- not diplomacy -- which draw media attention and which help to shine the national spotlight on noble efforts such as this. The T.V. images of people being arrested for seeking to meet their basic human needs tend to pull the heart strings of viewers and to garner support for the cause. That support can eventually translate into large numbers of concerned citizens joining the effort and lending their voices as people speak truth to their local politicians. It is this neat mix of unjust arrests and media coverage which helps to usher in the desired systemic changes.

No direct political action is complete without a "general line" -- a rallying war cry. And the rallying war cry of Take Back The Land is the "decommodification" of housing -- that housing should be treated as a necessity which is afforded to everyone, not a commodity which goes to the highest bidder. In lieu of recent housing market woes, this is a cause that all but those who profit from the commodification of housing can appreciate.


On the 2nd day (January 29th), people were trained in the ways of civil disobedience. A blog post couldn't possibly do justice to this issue. So, for that and other reasons (like the length of this post already), I will not address that here. People can have a civil disobedience training organized, as was the case in NYC. (A man came from California to teach legal and effective manners of disobeying the police.)

In Washington, DC I continue to organize locally. Local organizations that have signed on to this effort in some capacity include One DC ( and Empower DC ( Various local lawyers have offered their services and planning has begun on the local actions that will take place in May (possibly June, due to delays). There are those who favor giving Mayor Adrian Fenty another chance to make good on his promise and obligation to create affordable housing and who also want to give the DC Council another chance to exhibit some backbone by standing against this intransigent mayor and creating a sufficient number of affordable housing units. (I, personally, am indifferent to any effort to give the local politicians one more chance, as I don't think that much will change though you give them 1,000 chances.)

Another man named Eric is the other DC organizer. (He also went to NYC.) He works for one of the aforementioned law firms and is actually heading the effort to draft legislation making housing a human right. (He and I actually have a good cop/bad cop thing going on.) The legislation which is being drafted is actually predicated on the fact that Washington, DC was declared to be the first human rights city in the U.S. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights recognizes housing to be a human right and, as a human rights city, our nation's capital will be expected to cause this right to be realized by all of its citizens.

Across the nation and around the world I expect that people will find ways to join this effort. There is something for everyone to do. I will not create an exhaustive list of ideas in this already-lengthy blog post, but will instead leave you with this final bit of wisdom:

"Think globally. Act locally."

Eric Jonathan Sheptock
(240) 305-5255 -- personal info website
WWW.RECALLFENTY.COM -- To rid DC of a terrible mayor -- Slide show of Franklin School (inside and out)

MAYOR FENTY has a headache and his headache has a name -- ERIC JONATHAN SHEPTOCK.


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