Liberty Comes to Liberty City


Robert Neuwirth describes a Miami law that

takes its name from Pottinger v. City of Miami, a 1988 federal court case (decided in 1992), in which the city's policy of arresting homeless people for engaging in "life-sustaining conduct" on the street (thus making it a crime simply to be without a home on public land) was ruled illegal. "The City's practice of arresting homeless individuals for the involuntary, harmless acts they are forced to perform in public is unconstitutional," senior United States District Judge Clyde Atkins wrote in the decision, adding that "the City's practice of seizing and destroying the property of homeless individuals" was also against the law. The principles of Judge Atkins' decision were memorialized in a 1998 memorandum called The Pottinger Settlement.

Why write about the law now, years later? Because in Liberty City, a desperately poor ghetto neighborhood, a group called Take Back the Land is citing the settlement as it argues that it has the right to "squat on public land, to build housing for our own community" with "no government permission or money."

Here's an account of their efforts in a Miami Herald op-ed:

Umoja Village Shantytown…is a grass-roots Take Back the Land project started two months ago on a vacant city lot in response to Liberty City's gentrification, the affordable-housing crisis and the mismanagement of millions of dollars earmarked to ease this crisis. Umoja, 32 makeshift homes—wooden pallets covered with painted cardboard—is filled to capacity with 40 residents, including a family with an eight-week-old baby. There's even a waiting list. There's more than enough good cheer among the formerly homeless who run their small village. They have a work chart and a small garden. They make decisions collectively, cook communally and abide by the four rules posted outside the makeshift kitchen: respect for one another, no drugs or alcohol, no violence and no sexual harassment….

The city is considering offering Umoja's 40 residents beds in a homeless shelter. Most Umoja residents don't regard this as a viable option, in part because it is a temporary solution and in part because of the restrictions the shelters impose. Umoja resident Jonathan Baker had to leave a shelter because his job conflicted with the shelter's curfew. He's gainfully employed with a paycheck and taxes withheld. Should he be forced back into a shelter and subsequent unemployment?

Not having done any reporting on this myself, I can't say for sure whether this is really a short-term effort aimed at embarrassing the government into building more low-income housing or if the organizers genuinely hope to transform their camp into a more permanent neighborhood, a la the Third World squatter cities that Neuwirth, Hernando De Soto, and others have described. But their rhetoric certainly suggests the second approach. Check out the YouTube videos here, especially the third one, to see some people who are fed up with waiting for the government to act and ready to do things themselves. "One of the big things that we thought would not work," one activist explains, "was if we were like any other social service agency where we did everything and then delivered it to the residents. An integral part of this is that the residents had to participate in it and they had to run their own city." That's a marked contrast with life in the shelters. Whether it will work out as planned is still up in the air—there are people in the government who still hope to shut down the site.

The Sun-Sentinel covers the village here.

The Daily Business Review tackles the story here.

Reason's Mike Lynch visited a pirate radio station in Liberty City here.