Squatting and Concepts of Property Ownership in the Netherlands vs. Detroit

Yesterday I spent the afternoon in Rotterdam with a friend who is a local and a part-time Detroiter. I learned a lot about housing policy and the long, complex history of organized squatting in the Netherlands. In this post, I’ll provide a (very) brief overview of squatting in the Netherlands and how it contrasts with concepts of property ownership and housing policy in the US, particularly in the state of Michigan.

‘Kraken’ in the Netherlands

Squatting, or living in/occupying a property that one does not legally own, became popular and socially acceptable as a viable housing option in the Netherlands in the years after WWII, as the country experienced a severe housing shortage. Despite the lack of available and affordable housing, many property owners were holding on to vacant homes, waiting for the market to improve before selling or renovating them. Squatting had/has both a practical and political purpose: squatters needed a place to live, but they were also protesting the capitalist concept of homeownership that allows property owners to monopolize and exploit available housing stock for purely financial gain.

Squatting (‘kraken’ in Dutch) received legal protection in 1971, when the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that ‘the ‘house right,’ which protects homes from being entered against the will of the occupants, also applies to squatters. In order to (legally) evict a squatter, a building’s owner must take them to court, which is a lengthy process. The squatters movement gained momentum after this ruling and into the 1980s, when up to 20,000 people were living in homes they did not have legal title to. The documentary “Die Stadt Was Ons” (‘The City Was Ours’), released in 1996, focuses on the experiences of participants in Amsterdam’s squatters’ movement from 1975-88 (embedded below).

From 1994-2010, squatting was legalized in the Netherlands on a “use it or lose it” basis that allowed anyone to occupy a structure that had been vacant for a year or more, provided they did not enter the building by force. Under this law, squatters had to inform a building’s owners and the police that they were occupying the structure, and to prove that the building was inhabited, squatters needed only to supply a bed, a chair, a table, and a working lock on the door (Delta).

The Netherlands enacted a controversial and widely protested ban on squatting in 2010. But housing is still considered a human right here, protected under the Dutch Constitution, and keeping a property vacant purely for speculation (at least when squatters are involved) is still illegal. A court ruling in 2012 also made it illegal for an owner to evict squatters in order to demolish the building; to evict a squatter, an owner must provide a plan for the future use of the structure.

2017-03-25 14.56.38‘Anti-kraak’ (anti-squatting) agreements have helped to find a middle ground that recognizes and respects owners’ rights while recognizing that there’s an affordable housing shortage that vacant buildings can help alleviate. When would-be squatters enter into an anti-kraak agreement with a building’s owner, they agree to immediately vacate the premises once an owner decides to sell, rent, or demolish a property. This way, people who need homes and workspaces have them and a property is protected against vandalism and decay while an owner decides what to do with it.

Anti-kraak agreements are controversial because they occupy a legal ‘gray area’ and do not guarantee an occupant the rights of a renter. For instance, in addition to the “immediate eviction” provision and the sense of instability and stress that comes with knowing that you can be immediately removed from your residence at any time and for any reason, anti-kraak agreements often allow owners to legally enter the premises without advance notice to the occupant. Owners can also set unreasonable restrictions on residents, something that they would legally be prevented from doing if the occupant were paying rent.

‘Anti-kraak’ agreements are not viewed as a long-term solution to the country’s affordable housing problems. Many housing collectives and organizations have stepped in to advocate for squatters’ rights as a way to bridge the gap between housing need and availability. Organizations like Stad in de Maak, for example, focus on “temporary vacancy management” while working towards the long-term goals of creating affordable housing/workspaces and securing collective property ownership and management.

Squatting in Detroit

The Dutch approach to squatting contrasts with housing policy and anti-squatting laws in the US, where the law generally privileges and protects property owners (though many landlords would disagree with me on this), and holding on to properties for speculation, including keeping them vacant and letting them fall into disrepair, is not against the law; and even where it is against the law, as in the case of blight violations, it’s often just a fineable offense that is inconsistently enforced.

The legal difference reflects the different socio-cultural perspectives at play: whereas in the Netherlands, housing is considered a fundamental human right and squatting was and is considered to be a viable housing option, in the US, housing is generally not treated or discussed as a human right protected by law, and squatting is not a socially acceptable housing option.

Statutes enacted in September of 2014 in the state of Michigan, for example, criminalized squatting, making it punishable by fines and jail time, and did away with a previous law that required a property owner to file an eviction action to remove occupants even if they didn’t have a valid lease. Owners can now legally change the locks and remove a squatting resident’s personal belongings. Physically removing an individual is still not permitted; only law enforcement can legally use force in this situation. But this doesn’t stop landlords from using various intimidation tactics and/or illegally using force to remove a squatting resident, generally without consequence.

Prior to September 2014,  squatting was not a crime in Michigan, and the state still has ‘adverse possession’ laws on the books that allow trespassers to obtain title to a piece of land if certain requirements are met; these requirements, however, are pretty strict. The restrictions, coupled with the privileging of property owners’ rights and the social stigma attached to homelessness and squatting, make occupying a property that isn’t legally yours very difficult.

2017-03-25 14.47.15
This home in Rotterdam was slated to be demolished before a squatter collective stepped in to occupy it

Michigan’s anti-squatting laws were likely passed to benefit Detroit’s (new) property owners in particular, and perhaps as the result of one high-profile case. In 2012, a squatter (who was a former tenant) refused to leave a home in the city’s Boston-Edison neighborhood that was legally owned by someone else, and the owner involuntarily lived with the squatter as a roommate while she began eviction proceedings.

The owner had purchased the home in 2010 for $23,000 and had rented it out to the tenant until the structure failed a city inspection and could no longer be legally rented out. At that point the owner asked the tenant to leave, and rather make the necessary repairs to bring the house up to code, she left the city for a year, moving home to California. When the owner returned, she found that the squatting resident was still living in the house and that she had changed the locks, reworked the plumbing, replaced the appliances, and put a lien on the house. She had also filed paperwork with the city that stated that the house had been abandoned.

The former tenant wouldn’t leave, insisting that she had invested in the property and had a right to live there. The owner disagreed and was shocked to learn that she had to go through legal channels to evict her ex-tenant, which was surprising, because this process is very common and landlords in the city would be familiar with it. When asked if she was afraid of the person with whom she and her child were sharing the house, the owner said, rather oddly (and tellingly), “We’re afraid of her mindset of entitlement“.

Whereas the squatting resident’s position of wanting to continue occupying a home that she thought had been abandoned and in which she’d invested money and energy, would make sense on a cultural level in the Netherlands, in Detroit, where 1 in 3 homes are vacant and it’s the celebrated right of a property owner to keep a structure empty and dilapidated for as long as she likes, this was referred to in various local media stories as “2012’s most absurd news story” and “the height of insanity.” Commenters on different news pieces described the squatter as “unstable” and “a crazy-ass freak” and blamed her “black-socialist mentality” for her sense of entitlement. Commenters also publicly circulated the squatter’s personal contact information and links to her social media pages, urging others to go to her Facebook profile and “tell her she sucks so that everyone can see.”

A media frenzy ensued wherein the squatter was repeatedly referred to as a “criminal” by local reporters despite the fact that squatting was not a crime at the time (her actions were most often compared to theft). The squatter eventually left the house as a result of all the harassment and negative attention she was receiving, not because she’d been formally evicted. Just four months after the tenant left, the owner of the home put it back on the market because the reality of life in Detroit wasn’t what she had expected, and she strongly criticized the city in the home’s listing.

Detroit’s Affordable Housing Crisis

Despite the thousands of structures that have been demolished by the city since 2014, tens of thousands of structures still sit vacant and decaying, awaiting renovation or demolition. And yet there’s a shortage of affordable housing in Detroit. For the first time since 1950, renters outnumber homeowners, and half of those renters are low-income residents who will spend 30%-50% (or more) of their income on rent. Despite this, the state criminalizes squatting, even though it could potentially help with the housing shortage and can be a successful strategy for maintaining a property and protecting it from vandalism and scrapping, to the point that some neighborhoods in the city actively recruit squatters.

Local writer and activist Michele Oberholtzer advocates for a “homestead” program that would allow the current residents of homes owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA) to buy their homes. The DLBA, created in 2008 in the absence of a viable private property market in Detroit, is the largest holder of public land in the city and holds title to 93,000 vacant parcels of land and occupied/unoccupied homes. The city currently has programs–such as the Building Detroit auction and the Occupied Buyback Program–to sell vacant homes at low prices (starting at $1,000), but these programs have strict eligibility requirements and unrealistic expectations for how quickly a house can be renovated, brought up to code, and continuously occupied.

The DLBA’s official policy is to not formally evict former owners/renters from its properties (sometimes it just skips that step and illegally demolishes people’s homes while they’re still living in them). But even if that’s the case, simply not evicting people from the homes they occupy doesn’t address the structural issues (eg. property speculation, unconstitutional property tax assessments leading to widespread foreclosure, lack of rental code enforcement) that have created Detroit’s housing crisis. Oberholtzer argues that the dearth of effective programs in place to facilitate and expedite homeownership works to passively evict residents who do want to own and take care of their homes, and this, in turn, hurts the city as a whole:

“To understand the problem, consider the perspective of a person living in a home owned by the DLBA. Most were lawful occupants—including owners or renters—whose homes cycled into public ownership through tax foreclosure. Many of them do not even know who owns their home. There’s a toxic uncertainty that comes from not knowing who owns your home, how long you will get to stay there, or on what terms. While it’s nice not having to pay rent, this situation is tenuous for both person and property.

“Basic human psychology dictates that residents in these conditions will withhold emotional and financial investment in their home. A person is unlikely to paint the walls or plant a garden, let alone repair the leaking roof. Occupants of these properties exist in a sort of purgatory until disrepair, inability to access water without a current lease, or fear drives them out. Without a direct path to legitimate occupancy, gentler indirect forces provide a ‘passive eviction,’ leaving residents to scramble for new housing, and vacant homes to join the unabated queue of demolition fodder and scrap material.”

While I want to emphasize that this not a “passive” process driven by “gentler indirect forces”, the resulting instability and fear that Oberholtzer describes is very real and widespread, and residents who have lost their homes to foreclosure need a direct path (back) to homeownership. Legislation and the various protections offered by law are just one set of tools we can use in this fight.

Oberholtzer is the director of The Tricycle Collective, which works with the United Community Housing Coalition (UCHC) to help Detroiters living in foreclosed homes to buy the homes they already live in at auction. In 2016 alone, they raised $30,000 to help more than 50 families across Detroit to stay in their homes. The Collective, UCHC, and many other community organizations (including the Detroit Eviction Defense, Moratorium NOW!, Property Praxis, the Coalition to End Unconstitutional Tax Foreclosures, and many others) work to address different issues that cause and contribute to housing insecurity and instability in the city.

Tricycle Fundraiser-1
This mural was made by artists Ellen Rutt, Ouizi, and Jonny Alexander, in collaboration with the Tricycle Collective, to raise awareness of the many occupied homes being sold at auction across Detroit. Photo credit: Marissa Gawel

Again, these are not permanent solutions, nor are they meant to be. An organization like the Tricycle Collective may step in to help a family buy their home back once it has been foreclosed on, but the conditions for the home entering foreclosure in the first place aren’t being addressed. A legal and social shift of the kind that Oberholtzer is proposing, where the city prioritizes keeping long-term, low-income residents in their homes, would have to stem from changes in the way we view property ownership and the bundle of rights, privileges, and responsibilities associated with it in Detroit and in the US more broadly. Private property in settler colonial states like the US operates as a mechanism to take and divide up land and resources in accordance with societal beliefs about who is deserving of and entitled to them, and those criteria are inextricably linked to an investment in the cultural logics of whiteness.

For more information about the politics and history of squatting in the Netherlands and the impact of the 2010 ban on squatting, see “Squatting & Criminalisation in the Netherlands,” published in 2016 by the SQUASH (Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes) Campaign and “Squatting in Europe” by Hans Pruijt (2004). 

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