Foreclosure Nation: Squatters or Pioneers?

Take Back the Land installs homeless families in foreclosed Miami-Dade County properties. Here's what the neighbors think.

Mamyrah Prosper steps gingerly over ankle-high grass strewn with plastic bags and empty soda bottles in the yard of a vacant redbrick house in Miami's Liberty City. She peers through a gap in a boarded-up window. "It looks in good shape," she says. "I mean, the walls aren't falling down. This is definitely one of our stronger options."

Prosper means that if the place checks out, she and her colleagues from Take Back the Land, a local group that advocates for affordable housing, will break in, change the locks, paint and clean, innovate a way to connect water and electricity, and then move a homeless family into the house. The criminal laws they'll violate in the process range from trespassing to breaking and entering (even burglary, if the police get ambitious), which requires the organization to keep a pro bono lawyer on standby.

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"We call it 'liberating the housing,'" says Take Back the Land's cofounder Max Rameau, a compact Haitian American who's earned a reputation in Miami for creative activism. In 2006, Take Back received widespread attention when it took over a vacant city lot and erected a shantytown for the homeless that thrived for six months—that is, until a resident's candle burned down the encampment. Rameau's latest, and even more legally dubious, campaign targets homes shuttered by foreclosure.

In Greater Miami, there's no shortage of those. Last year, Miami-Dade County recorded 26,391 foreclosures, a nearly threefold increase from 2006, and the pace has only quickened since then. Meanwhile, public housing is in crisis; at least four people are in line for each of the 10,000 available units, and the local housing agency—spectacularly corrupt, even by Miami standards—was taken over by the federal government last year.

Communities nationwide have seen a deluge of properties left vacant by foreclosures, but housing advocates say they've yet to witness anything like Rameau's coordinated squatting campaign. "That's the first I've heard of that kind of direct action," says Linda Couch, deputy director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Low Income Housing Coalition. "It's incredibly frustrating for housing advocates knowing that there are so many vacant houses amid so many people on the brink of homelessness."

Rameau says Take Back's campaign has two objectives: "One is to actually house people. The other is to bring attention to the contradictions in housing policy. The problem is that doing one precludes the other." Drawing too much attention to Take Back's efforts, he explains, would also get the attention of law enforcement. So Rameau's organization has placed only two homeless families in foreclosed homes since the campaign began in October; the first was Cassandra and Jason, a couple in their late 20s, and their two small children. They'd been living in a van before Rameau moved them into a one-story stucco home in Liberty City. When I visited them in February, Cassandra, who works as a street vendor selling jewelry and incense, ushered me into the living room, furnished with two chairs, a moving trunk, and a small television. Bedsheets covered the windows, and the walls had just been painted saffron.

As far as the neighbors are concerned, the current tenants—squatters though they are—are a vast improvement over the crack den the vacant house had become. One neighbor even loaned the family electricity via an extension cord until a mysterious man sympathetic to Take Back's cause turned on power at the house. "I didn't ask any questions," Cassandra says. The new living situation, temporary as it might be, affords her and Jason the time to save up to rent a new apartment, she said. "This just takes the stress off."

According to the Miami-Dade County Housing Agency, squatters, if discovered, will be promptly removed from the premises and potentially prosecuted. So far, though, Take Back's foreclosure-squatting pioneers have avoided detection. Despite the dicey legality, Rameau says there are 14 families like Cassandra's on his waiting list. "We counsel them that they could be arrested if caught," he says. "But things are so desperate, they are willing to risk it."