This week, we take a divergence from the dense, policy-based reporting of the last several posts to focus on a small, little known social movement, the Take Back the Land Movement. Take Back the Land, an intentionally designed social movement that emerged via the work of diligent community organizers, possesses one central theme: to elevate the issue of Housing as a Human Right.
On it’s face, it’s easy to conflate the Miami-based organization with the countless other housing non-profits throughout the country, whose work is often challenged by bureaucracy and whose funding is likewise handcuffed by strictly regulated government grants. But Take Back the Land is different. It’s a grass roots movement that advocates on behalf of the homeless, with the goal of housing longtime homeless individuals and families as well as folks who’ve been displaced during the foreclosure crisis. And unlike the stereotypical “social movement,” which often encounter criticism for being “too much talk, not enough action,” Take Back the Land has succeeded in finding houses for displaced individuals through a creative yet simplistic technique: moving people into foreclosed properties.
It’s easy to wonder how this is accomplishable and why the movement is yet to come across serious issues with law enforcement. In an ABC News segment, Max Rameau, a spokesperson for the movement, offers a good reason: “this [foreclosed house] is a complete waste. This is not benefitting anyone. It’s not benefitting the bank, it’s not benefitting the community, it’s not benefiting the families. There’s no reason this house is empty.” (Rameau also wrote a book about developing a homeless village in an effort to provide affordable housing for low-income people, “Take Back the Land: Land, Gentrification and the Umoja Village Shantytown”). Furthermore, rather than face trouble with the law, the movement, at least in Miami, is gaining the police’s support. ABC spoke with the city’s Chief of Police, who expressed a refusal to enforce eviction notices, stating, “what Social Good would be served by arresting this mother, taking her away from her children?”
The movement has gained traction in several parts of the country, and while it’s not officially a non-profit, it’s website indicates that it has networked with “Local Action Groups” in cities coast to coast, ranging from Atlanta to Madison to Portland to Rochester. While not a policy-promoting organization, Take Back the Land’s approach mirrors a policy alternative discussed both in our blog as well as at Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s recent Vacant’s to Values summit, Code Enforcement.
The theory behind Code Enforcement involves heavily cracking down on delinquent property owners to ensure that they meet the city’s code; if they do not, the government, in one step, can turn the property back to the market, where it will be sold in a competitive auction. The idea behind the notion is that it would give property owners a strong incentive to maintain their homes while redirecting properties to a better owner if they do not. Similarly, by putting families back into vacant homes, Take Back the Land helps ensure that the homes are once again properly maintained and meeting code, keeping neighborhood property values up and benefitting the broader community. Their residents pay utilities, giving added business to companies that provide these services.
There are thousands of foreclosed properties in Baltimore and millions in the nation, the effect of which, in addition to harming families, encumber neighborhoods and by extension, capital markets and economies. Rather than high-minded policies, Take Back the Land provides a plainspoken way to mitigate this crisis, and rather than sitting back and spouting out ideas, they are acting. By doing so, they begin to make progress towards their stated objectives of encouraging the perception of housing as a human right, local control over housing, community-based leadership, and direct action campaigns. To be sure, plenty of their operations are illegal. However, policymakers and activists alike can benefit from the organization’s can-do spirit and human rights oriented strategy.