Chicago's Home-Liberation Front
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“Where’s the house?” Trisha James asked, leaning forward eagerly. She couldn’t contain her urgency; living each day house-to-house in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods had taken its toll. The shelters. The overcrowding. The uncertainty of whether anyone would even open the door.
The friend’s small house where James was staying that day, during a record-breaking heat wave, had 10 adult occupants, a rotating cast of their children and no indoor plumbing.
Martha Biggs smiled at her friend knowingly. Both women had been evicted from Cabrini Green, the city’s now-demolished housing complex, and spent years as homeless mothers. She knew that James would like the house, a modest Bank of NY Mellon-owned home on the South Side that had yet to be completely stripped for parts and trashed by gangs. Biggs and her right-hand man, John Newman, had already secured it.
Biggs and Newman weren’t working for any social service agency. To get a house this way, you have to work for it — buy the locks, paint the walls, fix the broken steps, clean out the trash. Rally some teenagers to help you put up drywall, if necessary. You have to understand that this isn’t just about finding a place to live; it’s about fixing up the neighborhood, making jobs, changing the whole idea of housing. And then you have to pass the knowledge on: another house, another family.
In short, you have to join.
A housing liberation movement is brewing in Chicago. The idea is simple: Tens of thousands — possibly hundreds of thousands — of vacant, bank-owned homes are a large part of what is making the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago into semi-forsaken tracts ridden with crime and blight. These houses are so bad that Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently announced that he’d spend $4 million just to tear some down. Meanwhile, there are more than 20,000 homeless adults and tens of thousands of additional homeless youth in the city fighting through life as capitalism’s refugees. (They aren’t receiving any additional mayoral funding.) The supposed truism of supply and demand seems to have gone haywire. Many no longer recognize the banks’ claim to ownership. The only definition of these so-called assets that makes sense is their immediate capacity to serve as homes for families.
“This is how we can house the city of Chicago,” said Thomas Turner, who has worked with Occupy Chicago and was homeless before he liberated and renovated four homes since the summer began. When a local property owner saw what Turner was during, she donated three more.
“You know this economic situation isn’t getting any better,” he continued. “So just like Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, MLK — all the people that stepped in and made our lives better today, we’re working for — how do you say it? Our living aspects of life. It’s a domino effect — and when it all falls down, we’re going to have a big beautiful design.”
The liberation movement is organized into a loosely connected network of cells that collaborate — and compete — to see how many houses they can free from bank control and open for homeless families, particularly single women with children. There’s no official count of liberated houses in Chicago to date, but there are well over 25, maybe more than 50. The majority of organizers are themselves currently or formerly homeless, working under a variety of banners, including the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, a group that grew out of the Cabrini Green housing project, and Take Back the Land, a national network centered on making housing a human right. Other groups choose to operate under the radar of media attention (a choice I have respected by keeping participants and their actions anonymous). Some hold no organizational affiliation; they are just members of the community who see this work as the best hope to save their city.