Posts tagged South Central Farmers

Urban homesteading

So, I have an essay coming up in next month’s Freeman (thanks to the encouragement and editorial efforts of the indefatigable Sheldon Richman). It’s called Scratching By, and the theme is to explain how it’s not the free market, but rather the State, in its role as the invisible fist of corporate capitalism, that creates the material predicament faced by poor folks in American cities. One of the topics that I touched on there, and which I mentioned before in my comments on the South Central Farmers, is government control and planning of inner-city land use. Government regimentation of land squeezes poor people economically; perhaps more importantly, it also keeps them permanently in hock to, and at the mercy of, a select handful of politically-connected developers and slumlords. Last week, Women of Color Blog (2007-11-09) alerted me to the latest example: HUD’s continuing refusal to let New Orleans public housing residents return to their old homes, even two years after the fact. All for their own good, of course, whether or not they happen to think that they are best off living as permanent refugees. The plan is to begin demolishing the homes, now forcibly kept vacant, in order to make room for government redistribution of the land to connected developers for the usual urban renewal projects.

A major human rights crisis exists in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. It is a crisis that denies the basic rights to life, equality under the law, and social equity to Black, Indigenous, migrant, and working class communities in the region. While this crisis was in existence long before Hurricane Katrina, the policies and actions of the US government and finance capital (i.e. banking, credit, insurance, and development industries) following the Hurricane have seriously exacerbated the crisis.

One of the clearest examples of this crisis is the denial of the right to housing in New Orleans, particularly in the public housing sector. Since the Hurricane, the US government through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has denied the vast majority of the residents of public housing the right to return to their homes. Unlike the vast majority of the housing stock in New Orleans, the majority of the public housing units received little to no flood or wind damage from the Hurricane. Yet, as of October 2007 only ¼ of the public housing units have been reopened and reoccupied. The Bush government refuses to reopen the public housing units in New Orleans because it appears intent on destroying the public housing system, demolishing the existing structures, and turning over the properties to private real-estate developers to make profits.

Based on the discriminatory Federal Court ruling issued on Monday, September 10th, all of the major public housing units in New Orleans are now subject to immediate demolition (the latest report from Monday, November 5th is that HUD will attempt to start the demolition on Monday, November 19th. However, this is being challenged by various legal advocates and will be delayed until at least Wednesday, November 28th pending a Federal court hearing). The first site on the schedule for demolition is the Lafitte housing project.

— My Private Casbah 2007-11-09: All Public Housing Units In New Orleans Set To Be Demolished

Now, I’m an anarchist. As such, I’m also intent — far more intent than George W. Bush could ever dream to be — on destroying the so-called public housing system. I hope to destroy it right along with the rest of the statist system of regimentation, rationing, command and control. But, the Department of Bulldozers’ opinions notwithstanding, destroying the system of control is not the same thing as knocking over the homes that the government controls. The hope is to liberate them and allow people to reclaim their lives from the domination of the State and the exploitation of state capitalism.

As far as these particular public housing units are concerned, the proper question to ask is, who rightfully owns the homes that are set to be demolished? In the eyes of the State legal system, that’s the Housing Authority of New Orleans, a quasi-governmental non-profit corporation substantially under the control of its patron, the federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development. But neither HANO nor any other creature of the State can be the rightful owner of this or any other property. States are nothing more than massive criminal enterprises; they have no land and no money except what they expropriate from others by force. Their claim to the Lafitte housing project, like all their other claims, is fraudulent, because piracy is not a legitimate means for acquiring title to anything.

So if not HANO, who are the rightful owners? Well, when property has been lost or abandoned, it rightfully belongs to those who find it and put it to use. In the case of New Orleans and its government housing projects, that means that the people who should rightfully be regarded as the owners are not HUD or HANO bureaucrats, but rather the current tenants. Each resident has gained a legitimate ownership interest in her home, and in the land that it is built on, in virtue of occupying and homesteading it. Radical libertarians should recognize, on free market principles, that the federal government’s interventionist efforts to lock poor people out of their own homes and pass the land along to the nearest professional slumlord for development should be regarded as nothing more or less than State-sponsored theft. Specifically, State-sponsored theft in the name of propping up the political-economic class system of landlordism.

The radical implications of the homesteading principle for urban housing extend far beyond New Orleans. In pretty much every major American city, there is a more or less permanent supply of vacant lots, burned-out plants, condemned buildings, and other land which has been held out of use for years, and will continue to be held out of use for years to come. Part of the reason that so much land remains idle is that formal title has often been seized by the city government or by quasi-governmental development corporations, through the use of eminent domain, and the lots are simply abandoned while they await government public works projects or developers willing to buy up the land for large-scale building. In a free market, vacant lots and abandoned buildings should be available for homesteading by anyone willing to do the work of occupying and using them — which emphatically includes poor people in search of housing, a place to set up shop, land to cultivate for food, or for whatever other use they can put it to. It is only government intervention on behalf of state capitalism that keeps these lots shuttered and keeps them locked up in the hands of government bureaucrats and real estate developers; without statism there would be no political process of expropriation, demolition, redistribution, and redevelopment. Free people would be able to establish property rights in abandoned land, and thus provide their own housing, free of landlords and bulldozers, through their own sweat equity.

It’s because of this that I’ve been following the Take Back the Land movement in Miami with a lot of interest and a lot of sympathy. Their first project, the Umoja Village shanty-town (1, 2), was as good an example as you could like of socializing the land through direct action. And now, Max Rameau writes that their new project is to Take Back the Housing:

October 23, 2007 marks one year since the rise of the Umoja Village Shantytown in the Liberty City section of Miami in response to the crisis of gentrification and low income housing. In the year since this “people power” action, much has changed and much more remains the same. Black and other poor communities are ravaged by the crisis of gentrification and low-income housing while the same government which extracts taxes from us, does nothing to alleviate the crisis. One year later, the issue of community control over land remains fundamental in solving the crisis.

As the real estate bubble explodes around us, vacant foreclosed homes litter our communities and speculators choose to hold onto vacant houses and apartments, waiting for the next market swing in order to make their millions. For it’s part, in spite of all the scandal and crisis, Miami-Dade County doggedly maintains an unconscionable and immoral stockpile of vacant public housing units, units which otherwise would shelter some of the 41,000 families languishing on the housing assistance waiting list.

All the while, the homeless population grows, particularly among the under-housed, those not living on the street, but doubling and tripling up in single family homes, including public housing, where the extra families live illegally, endangering the housing security of the entire extended family, sometimes right next door to a boarded up, vacant unit.

We are forced to conclude that Miami-Dade County intentionally leaves units vacant, or tears down public housing all together–exemplified by the HOPE VI funded Scott-Carver public housing project demolition–as a means of fueling the real estate boom. When governments take units of low-income housing off of the market, the value of the remaining privately held units increases, as families scramble to find new living arrangements. This is nothing short of tax financed market manipulation, designed to decrease supply at a time when demand is sky high, resulting in a government sponsored–not market driven–real estate boom.

… In spite of the crisis, scandal and controversy, the reality is that local governments continue to enrich wealthy developers and have intentionally failed to address this crisis in any meaningful way. Neither Miami-Dade County nor the federal government operates based on the interests of poor Black people. As such, we are left with no other option than to provide for the people for whom the government is not providing.

Take Back the Land, again, asserts the right of the Black community to control land in the Black community. In order to provide housing for people, not for profit, this community control over land must now take the form of direct community control over housing.

Consequently, Take Back the Land has initiated the process of moving families and individuals into vacant housing, whether public, foreclosed upon or privately owned and intentionally vacated.

As of this writing, several families have already been moved into housing and several more are desperately awaiting their turn. We will move families and individuals into vacant housing units all across Miami-Dade County.

— Take Back the Land 2007-10-24: Take Back the Housing

A true free market requires an end to what Benjamin Tucker rightly condemned as the land monopoly, and a radical application of the homestead principle, which means that an awful lot of squatter’s rights can and should be recognized as the basis of a just claim to the land. While I disagree with Tucker on some of the specifics of rightful land ownership — for example, I don’t think that rental contracts necessarily constitute abandonment of land — I do agree that absentee landlordism is artificially propped up by a pervasive and unjust system of government intervention on behalf of the rentier class. Abandoned land rightfully belongs to those who can reclaim it through occupancy and use. So three cheers from this libertarian to Take Back the Land, and here’s hoping that counter-economic urban homesteading will spread — throughout Miami, onward to New Orleans, and throughout every housing market currently clutched in the talons of land monopoly and state capitalism.

Further reading:

Enclosure comes to Los Angeles

The news from Los Angeles is that everything old is new again.

The 14-year effort to establish an urban farm in the heart of South Los Angeles came to an end today when authorities evicted the farmers, as well as some celebrities who were supporting them by keeping vigil on the land.

The eviction occurred during a frenzied day both at the farm site and at City Hall as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other city leaders negotiated with the landowner through the morning, failing to reach a deal to save the farm even though the mayor said they had come up with the owner’s $16-million asking price

… About 50 deputies arrived at the property about 5 a.m. and used bolt cutters to remove locks and gain access to the 14-acre property near 41st and Alameda streets. At least a dozen people had remained inside the farm, some chained under trees and others locking hands around 55-gallon drums filled with concrete. At least 40 people were arrested at the site.

… After the 1992 riots, the city leased the land to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which began the community garden. In 2003, the city sold the land back to Horowitz for about $5 million.

… The site has a contentious history. The city acquired the land from Horowitz through eminent domain in the 1980s for a planned trash incinerator, but the project was stopped by neighborhood opposition.

After the 1992 riots, the city leased the land to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which began the community garden. In 2003, the city sold the land back to Horowitz for about $5 million.

But the farmers did not leave. In the last three years, and particularly in recent weeks, the farmers have pleaded to stay despite Horowitz’s plans to sell the land for development.

— Hector Becerra, Los Angeles Times (2006-06-13): Farmers, Celebrities Evicted From Urban Plot

The Times’s story has a major defect: it seriously distorts the history of the title to the lot, and dramatically overstates Ralph Horowitz’s personal claim to the land prior to the 1985 eminent domain seizure. The New Standard‘s History of the South Central Farm has a much more accurate and detailed rundown of the site’s history, and the shady means that Horowitz used to get the city to entitle him to the land. The precis is that, some twenty years ago the city government stole some land from a group of private owners. Ralph Horowitz was a partner in a real estate investment firm that owned about 80% of the land that was stolen. The city government planned to use the land for a garbage incinerator, but abandoned the plan, in the face of neighborhood opposition, in 1987. The lot remained abandoned for seven more years, when working folks from the neighborhood set up on the unused land, established gardens and cultivated the land in the lot. Some 350 families in South Central L.A., many of them Hispanic immigrants, now grow their own food on the land. Seven years later, in 2001, Ralph Horowitz went to court to try to force the city to sell the land to him — all of it, apparently, not just whatever share had belonged to him personally when the city government took the land. After two years of legal fighting, the city government cut a closed-door deal with Horowitz, declaring him the absentee landlord in return for a $5 million pay-off. Horowitz planned to force the farmers off of his land, so he could develop it by tearing down the farms they had spent the past decade cultivating and putting up a warehouse on the seized land for — guess who? — good old Wal-Mart. After another three years of court fights, he has just called in the city goons to force the farmers off their land once and for all.

Here’s the Times, giving us the neo-mercantilist view of the proceedings:

Undeveloped land

Some in the community support him, arguing that the area would benefit from the jobs that would come if the land were developed.

Thanks to this textbook example of weasel-wording, we can’t single out the some in the community for the derision they so richly deserve. But we can, at least, single out the L.A. Times for uncritically repeating the idiot notion that farmland that’s been cultivated for a decade and a half hasn’t been developed, and for declining to mention whether the 350 families who grow their own food in their own garden are keen on sacrificing their own primary food source for the sake of jobs to benefit the area.

Meanwhile, the editorialists at the Times, apparently gunning for a mention in Kevin Carson’s Vulgar Libertarianism Watch, defended the shredding of property rights in favor of Horowitz’s government-granted property entitlement. We are told that Horowitz’s actions will not qualify him for a humanitarian of the year award. But it’s still his land, and that means he can sell it to whomever he chooses. If it were his, then of course he could use it as he sees fit, or sell it as he sees fit, or, if he wants to, sit on it and twiddle his thumbs all day. But by what right does the lot belong to him? Because he bought it from the city government? But the city government cannot sell what it does not own; and how by what right did it belong to them? Because they stole it, fair and square?

Or is it because he used to own the land, before the city stole it from him? Well, he didn’t own it, actually — not all of it. He owned a share in the 80% of the land that belonged to his and his partners’ investment company, but his prior ownership gives him no personal claim at all to his partners’ share of the 80% of the land, let alone to the 20% of the land that did not belong to their company. And whatever share of the land did rightfully belong to him no longer does. Horowitz may very well have a legitimate claim against the city government for stealing land which belonged partly to him. Eminent domain is theft, and Horowitz was one of the victims. But the city government cannot pay off that debt by selling back the land out from under the people who have been occupying and cultivating the land for more than a decade. The Times, for its part, derides the fact that The main argument of the protesters seems to be that because the farmers have been squatting for more than a decade on property they don’t own, they have earned the right to stay there permanently. But property they don’t own could mean either of two things. Squatting on property that somebody else owns gets you no rights to the property. But squatting on property that nobody owns certainly does; how else should people gain ownership over unclaimed and abandoned lands? What gives farmers the right to stay on their farms is not the fact that they’re squatting on someone else’s land; it’s that, by squatting on an abandoned lot, they became the rightful owners — the city and Horowitz’s piratical agreements over how to divvy up the booty notwithstanding.

So it goes — another robber baron manages to destroy whatever good things working folks in South Central L.A. have managed to build for themselves, and pays a few million to hire the city’s goons to enforce it. The gardens that folks have spent 14 years tilling and growing are torn up in front of their eyes so that a politically-connected real estate developer can put up another warehouse on their land, all in the name of development and jobs for the area. Meanwhile hucksters pretending to defend property rights come out for the armed defense of arbitrary fiefdoms granted by the city government, and against the rights of the politically dispossessed to homestead abandoned land and enjoy the fruits of their own labor. And a few years down the road, when the jobs and the development have come and gone and changed not much of anything, the privileged hand-wringers will go on wringing their hands and wondering why those people in South Central L.A. are so badly off, and the progressives and Libertarian Dems among them will wonder why can’t the government please do something to help those poor, benighted folks out? Or, as brownfemipower puts it:

But most of all, I am outraged that all the fucking ignorant white folks of the world will continue to look down on people of color and their urban communities with disgust and superiority–and ask so innocently, How can those people live like that? Like that, of course being typical nigger/spic/gook behavior like trash on the streets, piss in the elevators, burned out houses, etc etc etc. When every damn thing you ever cared about and took care of is brutally ripped from your fingers and you are told to say thank you for that brutal comandeering WHY THE FUCK IN HOLY HELL ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO KEEP CARING, KEEP TRUSTING, KEEP WORKING TO MAKE THINGS BEAUTIFUL?????

WHAT ARE WE SUPPOSED TO LOVE? WHAT ARE WE SUPPOSED TO TAKE CARE OF WHEN WE KNOW THAT EVERY THING WE LOVE, EVERYTHING WE TOUCH, EVERYTHING WE EAT AND BREATH, IS OWNED BY SOMEBODY ELSE WHO CAN TAKE IT AWAY FROM US AT ANY TIME WITH THE VIOLENT HELP OF THE STATE?

— brownfemipower, Women of Color Blog (2006-06-13): L.A. community garden lost to capitalism

The South Central Farmers have contact information, in case you’d like to let Ralph Horowitz and the L.A. city government know what you think of their recent renewal of the Enclosure Movement. You can also make a tax-deductible donation to the Farmers’ efforts to ransom the farm back from Horowitz; if they can’t raise enough to meet Horowitz’s asking price, your donation will be returned to you.

Further reading: