Date of Degree
Social and Cultural Anthropology
Housing, New York City, Oral History, Personhood, Property, Squatting
Framing property as a socio-historical process and squatters as situated actors within that process, this dissertation seeks to understand how a relatively stable and hegemonic property regime, such as private property in the United States, works and changes. Squatting is an ideal lens for understanding the complex transformation of private property, as it leads us to the times and places where the political and moral economies of property are actively contested and renegotiated. Squatters who make successful claims on property draw our attention to disjunctures between the moral economy and the legal system of property. Squatters had a complex and dynamic relationship with private property, simultaneously using, transforming and challenging the cultural materials that make up the private property regime.
New York City in the 1980s and `90s was home to a squatting movement unlike any other in the United States. Squatters on the Lower East Side took over abandoned buildings in the aftermath of New York City's fiscal crisis, occupying land in a neoliberalizing city, in a gentrifying neighborhood, and making claims on it that challenged those ways of being in the city. In a context of austerity, in which city government was shifting its focus from caring for citizens to creating an attractive environment for business and economic elites, squatters simply took what they thought was their fair share of the city's resources and offered their labor in return, using the symbolic social resources of homeownership to make property and citizenship claims. Disentangling occupation, stewardship, and ownership, squatters highlight the tensions between the home as a commodity and source of equity and the home as a shelter for the family, or even a human right. This dissertation shows how the squatting movement successfully constrained the capacity of the city's leaders and investors to create market rate housing on the Lower East Side, at length driving the city to agree to sell eleven squatted buildings, for one dollar each, to a non-profit that would help bring the buildings up to code. The former squats would then be converted to limited-equity low-income cooperatives and the renovation loans would become mortgages. The legalization process was contested and uneven: as of 2013, only five of the eleven buildings in the legalization deal had been converted into co-ops.
The struggles of the Lower East Side squatters as they navigated the legalization process reflect the growing anxiety about and precarity of homeownership among Americans today, while also being inflected with their own unique decades of experience living in decommodified housing. Squatters struggled to find a way to become collective homeowners without destroying their collective values: control over one's space and one's time. Counterintuitive as it may seem, the production and circulation of commodities can be an effective means to assert values alternative to those of contemporary capitalism. They debated whether it was moral to profit from housing, how equity was produced, and how it should be distributed. Agreeing to the legalization deal did not automatically protect the squats from being evicted or incorporated into the flows of endlessly profit-seeking capital. They tried to find ways to create security for themselves amidst the real risks of foreclosure and eviction.
While individual, private property and collective property are often opposed, this study reveals all that is obscured by that dichotomy. The forms of limited-equity collective homeownership into which squatters entered created new social ties of debt and responsibility while threatening old forms of solidarity based on shared labor, caretaking, and mutual defense. Given the chance to become homeowners, a significant minority of squatters wanted to fully commodify their homes rather than giving up some of their own property rights for the benefit of future low-income owners. Equity, security, prosperity and social mobility were especially tempting after a decades-long struggle to procure decent, affordable housing had left residents depleted and sometimes isolated from the larger economy. However, the public subsidies they received, the intention of the labor invested, and the nature of the social and political claims they articulated as squatters made this impossible.
For many, especially those with marketable skills, stable jobs, or middle class privilege, legalization was a boon, but, as was the case in many informal settlements in the developing world where property has been formalized, for the most marginal it ranged from tolerable to disastrous. As each person was required to produce an identical monetary contribution to the cooperative's collective monthly expenses, the squatters' ability to accommodate people who made a diverse variety of contributions, from construction work to political strategizing, and especially to include those who could contribute little but desperately needed housing, was compromised. For those who stayed, this was often an intensely painful process in which they had to choose between protecting the group's collective property and protecting the group's values and weakest members. Squatters attempting to protect their shared property and legacy mobilized the language of the family and the house, as well as the practices of history-making.
Today, when the moral economy of debt is hotly debated and cities struggle to make use of housing with no exchange value, the experiences of Lower East Side squatters are particularly valuable. In the context of the current ongoing foreclosure crisis and the uneven, contested, yet pervasive process of neoliberalization and privatization, this study should both give hope and give pause to those seeking to experiment with alternatives to private property. As this study has shown, the decommodification of housing provides a means to house the most vulnerable people in society. Squatters' small-scale and mostly successful battle to shepherd their collective property into the realm of legal ownership without succumbing to the logic of the market shows us that resistance to the financialization of everything is still possible.
Starecheski, Amy, "What Was Squatting, and What Comes Next?: The Mystery of Property in New York City, 1984-2014" (2014). CUNY Academic Works.