Detroit Neighborhood Recruits Some Squatters

Wanted: urban homesteaders capable of keeping an abandoned property in shape. Must be willing to defy the law.


Joel Kurth writes in The Detroit News:

A photo from another Northwest Brightmoor Renaissance project
Northwest Brightmoor Renaissance

In a remote pocket of northwest Detroit along the Rouge River, neighbors are so desperate to stop a cycle of abandonment and blight they're recruiting a squatter to occupy a home whose longtime owners left last weekend.

That's because neighbors fear the onetime farmhouse on Puritan and Hazelton will be stripped and torched if it remains empty for long. Eight nearby houses burned in the past two years. A few blocks away, there are more weedy lots than homes.

"We want squatters. There's so much abandonment here, we need them to turn the neighborhood around," said Jennifer Mergos, 33, co-founder of the Northwest Brightmoor Renaissance neighborhood group…."If I didn't have three small children, I'd squat in there in a heartbeat with a dog, a gun and some wasp spray."

Kurth notes that in Michigan, squatting is "punishable by up to two years in prison for repeat offenders." Under the circumstances, you might expect the city to look the other way, and perhaps it will. But the authorities' priorities can skewed sometimes: The police are evidently unable to stop the arsons, but they were quick to crack down when some homeowners in the neighborhood started raising goats. (According to Kurth, the household was planning to start a kibbutz.)

In any event, the community group appears to have found the squatters it was seeking—its Facebook page reports that the "farmhouse is now occupied by some great neighbors." Apparently, Detroit is a place where squatters aren't hard to locate. Here's Kurth again:

[W]hile there are no statistics on squatting, city data indicate at least 5,500 publicly owned, abandoned buildings are likely occupied.

Squatting is the next step in a do-it-yourself culture that's taken root by necessity in Detroit, said neighborhood leader Riet Schumack.

Brightmoor neighbors already mow lawns and board vacant homes, she said. Technically, that's trespassing and illegal, Schumack added….

The issue is percolating as Wayne County is conducting its annual auction of tax-foreclosed homes this month and October. About 8,000 of the 25,000 Detroit properties for sale are occupied, which means occupants could become squatters in homes they used to own.

"Detroit could be the largest phenomenon of squatting in recent history in America," said Bernadette Atuahene, a law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

She spent the summer interviewing 40 squatters in Detroit and said she has "no trouble finding them."

Bonus links: Northwest Brightmoor Renaissance's website is here. Reason TV covers some ideologically driven Detroit squatters here. Hernando de Soto argues that squatters built America here.