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Chicago's Home-Liberation Front

The city has tens of thousands of of vacant, bank-owned homes and as many homeless citizens. Supply and demand seems to have gone haywire.

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John Newman, for example, has his pockets stuffed with red slips — receipts from the pawnshops where he has traded in his own possessions for money to buy locks and building materials. Martha Biggs is hiding his most valuable belongings in her own liberated home to keep him from pawning them, too.

“People need houses,” said Newman. “I’m a veteran, so I’m going to help people. If I have something, you have something, and then we got something together.”

A perfect storm in the Windy City

Since 2008, the housing liberation movement has been building nationally, with actions in Miami, Madison, Detroit, Raleigh, New York and other cities. Nowhere has it expanded as rapidly as in Chicago, though, where various factors have made it the leading place for home liberation. Firstly, 55 percent of the city’s adult African American men have been branded as felons for life, barring them from access to public housing and often private housing as well.

“I couldn’t live anywhere because of background checks,” explained one formerly homeless mother who now lives with her children in a liberated home on the South Side.

“Wherever I sent in a [housing] application,” she continued, “they said I was denied. Denied, denied, denied” — all because she was briefly incarcerated nearly 10 years ago. Convicted drug felons are explicitly prohibited from almost all public housing, and the Federal Fair Housing Act, which prevents various types of housing discrimination, does nothing to stop landlords from running background checks and refusing to rent to those with a rap sheet.

Secondly, in the last decade, the city has demolished almost the entire public housing stock under former Mayor Richard Daley’s “Plan for Transformation,” creating a wave of evictions that led to the formation of direct-action housing groups, such as the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, before the market even collapsed. And lastly, because Chicago is the most highly segregated large city in the United States, the racially-targeted subprime lending boom and subsequent crisis concentrated foreclosures on the south and west sides of the city, inciting a downward spiral for property taxes. This in turn contributed to school closures, widespread unemployment and the highest murder rate in the country.

The movement will not be televised

Housing activism is perhaps the issue in the United States right now that boasts the most plentiful direct actions:

truck-halting eviction blockades, sale-stopping auction disruptions and bolt-breaking house liberations. Even so, Chicago’s housing liberation movement is rare for its focus on scaling its work not through media coverage but through word-of-mouth recruitment among the city’s homeless and precariously housed. Many either eschew media coverage or simply consider it a waste of time — not out of fear of police repression. Rather, the spurning of media reveals a deeper goal to make these home liberations in and of themselves the solution, rather than symbols or ideas that might inspire solutions. The number one goal of Chicago’s home liberation movement is not to influence the dominant economy; it’s to create an alternative one.

Organizers are aware that eventually, when enough houses are liberated, this sub-economy could force change in the dominant one, just as the Black Panthers’ free lunch program prompted the government to serve free school lunches lest it concede that a radical movement could provide what the state could not.

“If I can put 100 people in 100 houses, when you think the government is going to say, ‘Damn, she doing something?’” said Biggs.

But in the meantime, the focus is on rehab, not reporters.

Which contracts really bind?

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