Who are you? Squatters can actually help a neighborhood

A squatter looking out of the balcony window into Regents Park, from a house in Cornwall Gardens, London.

Photo credit: Frank Tewkesbury/Thinkstock

ANN ARBOR—Squatters who illegally occupy vacant homes or buildings are not always contributing to apathy or social disorder, say University of Michigan researchers.

It can actually be a good situation for a neighborhood to have these individuals move into abandoned homes, lessening the chance of them becoming sites for drug users or burned by arsonists, according to the study.

In urban communities nationwide that are experiencing population decline, such as Detroit, homes have been abandoned by owners or left unattended by private investors who often purchase them in bundles of tens, hundreds or even thousands.

“While attempts to revitalize a city rely on private ownership to induce responsible care for property, that isn’t always an option,” said Claire Herbert, the study’s author.

That’s where squatters come in.

Herbert, a doctoral candidate in the U-M Department of Sociology and a trainee in the Population Studies Center at the Institute for Social Research, interviewed more than 60 squatters, city authorities and residents between 2013 and 2015 while gathering ethnographic data on illegal property use from various sources, such as community meetings in squatted areas across Detroit.

Abandoned homes in Detroit.

Photo credit: TennesseePhotographer/Thinkstock

Surprisingly, many of the study participants welcome squatters to keep abandoned homes occupied. Squatting, however, was not considered acceptable to residents if the home was still occupied or if the legal owner was maintaining and overseeing the property.

But, when there is minimal police or city oversight to enforce legal owners to maintain their vacant properties, remaining residents seek solutions, Herbert said. Many forego invoking the law to enforce legal ownership, but instead encourage responsible squatters because it lessens the risk for metal scrappers to invade the dwelling.

The study, “Like a Good Neighbor, Squatters Are There: Neighborhood Stability After All the Windows Have Been Broken,” will be presented at the 111th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association Aug. 21 in Seattle.

Contact

Jared Wadley, jwadley@umich.edu, 734-936-7819

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