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February 2023 Issue [Letter from Philadelphia]

No Vacancy

Can empty houses help solve homelessness?
Illustrations by Danijel Žeželj

Illustrations by Danijel Žeželj

[Letter from Philadelphia]

No Vacancy

Can empty houses help solve homelessness?

In the summer of 2020, I visited a homeless encampment in Philadelphia to meet a thirty-four-year-old mother, activist, and metal scrapper named Jennifer Bennetch. In Sharswood, a predominantly black neighborhood in North Philadelphia, about forty tents stood on a dusty, triangular lot, hemmed in by broad avenues dotted with bodegas, a barbershop, and a ramshackle Baptist church. Bennetch, who had helped establish the camp, was boisterously holding court when I arrived. “Give me your blood!” she bellowed into a bullhorn when a police officer walked by, eliciting laughter from the camp dwellers. A few nights earlier, cops had encircled the encampment, but they’d left without attempting any evictions. Around the perimeter of the lot, wooden pallets had been erected as barricades. There was a rumor that weapons were hidden in some of the tents.

In addition to squatting on this vacant lot, Bennetch and her allies had spent the past few weeks commandeering more than a dozen vacant row houses throughout the city, filling them with residents from homeless camps. Soon, she’d orchestrate the occupation of nearly twenty-five more. The lot and all of the homes were owned by the city or the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Altogether the municipal authorities owned around ten thousand vacant properties, many of which had been empty for decades.

The squats were a way of providing the unhoused with emergency shelter, but Bennetch and her fellow activists had a more ambitious goal in mind: pressuring the PHA and the city to deed them the houses they were occupying. Letting homes sit empty during a housing crisis, as homeless camps overflowed, was a flagrant abdication of the authorities’ duty to house the poor. “We’re just doing what the city is supposed to be doing,” Bennetch told me.

Seated in the circle of camp residents, Bennetch explained that the tent city’s location was strategic. In recent years, the PHA had begun compensating for budget cuts by selling some of its properties to private owners and developers. The lot where the camp had been constructed was itself a PHA property—and now the planned site of a $52 million mixed-used development project. By blocking construction, she and the campers were effectively holding the deal hostage.

Bennetch laughed mischievously and pointed across the street. Fifty feet away, across Ridge Avenue, stood the PHA headquarters and the office of her nemesis, the PHA CEO and president Kelvin Jeremiah. The glittering glass building, which opened in 2019, seemed like an ostentatious expenditure for a public housing agency that claimed to have had a budget shortfall of more than a billion dollars. Bennetch told me that it made her happy to imagine Jeremiah looking down at the camp from his corner-office window and wringing his hands in frustration. She switched on her bullhorn and, doing a little jig, shouted, “Come out and play, Kelvin! Come out and play!”

Around noon, Bennetch tucked her bullhorn into a stroller and set off to meet a group of would-be squatters at one of the targeted PHA-owned buildings a few blocks away. Dressed in crimson stretch pants, a crimson T-shirt, and a black hijab, Bennetch walked down a ravaged street where vacant row houses outnumbered those that appeared occupied. After she aged out of foster care, she was homeless for seven years and began using the stroller to collect scrap metal for money. These days, she mostly used it to cart the bullhorn around. In a black fanny pack, she kept a handwritten list of vacant homes she’d scouted out—more than five hundred in total, and those were just the homes within stroller-pushing distance of the camp.

“This isn’t some Robin Hood shit,” Bennetch said. “It’s just common sense—empty house, homeless person, put them together. It ain’t that complicated.” She spoke with a Delco accent—the marbly pronunciation popularized by Kate Winslet in HBO’s Mare of Easttown—and sprinkled the Philadelphia slang term “jawn” into every few sentences. “Look how many of these jawns are just sitting here going to waste,” she said, indicating a building with the telltale steel door that the PHA installs on many of its vacant properties. Over the next few blocks, we passed dozens more. Scattered amid them was evidence of the neighborhood’s recent influx of new, mostly white, residents—brick-and-glass condos, some built on lots purchased from the PHA. One luxury building had advertised its units with a billboard depicting a leering white man and an ominous warning: it’s your turn.

On Turner Street, a dozen people stood on the sidewalk in front of a beige, two-story home that two of the squatters had been trying to move into. They were Indigo Vaughn, a twenty-year-old Temple University student forced to leave their dorm because of the pandemic, and Nisia Glover, a twenty-eight-year-old who had grown up in the neighborhood and had lost her job and apartment at the beginning of the pandemic. Within a half hour of our arrival, the police showed up. In Philadelphia, if a squatter fails to offer convincing proof that they occupy the residence—mail, an electricity bill in their name, visible evidence of clearly having lived there for a few days—then they can be charged with criminal trespassing by the police. Rather than risk arrest, Vaughn and Glover quietly slipped their freshly cut keys into their pockets and agreed to leave. “Where do we go now?” Glover asked one of the officers.

A few weeks later, Bennetch received an unexpected answer to this question. On October 1, 2020, she got a phone call from Jeremiah. The contract for the $52 million construction deal would be canceled if construction didn’t start in a few days, and Jeremiah wanted to make an offer: If Bennetch cleared the camp, he’d give her and her fellow activists nine vacant PHA houses, and even pay for seven of them to be professionally renovated. A week later, a representative from the mayor’s office also reached out. In exchange for clearing another, larger encampment, the city government and the PHA would each give the activists an additional twenty-five vacant houses, for a total of fifty-nine. Bennetch couldn’t believe it.

“They kept saying, ‘You have all of this property, give us the property! Give us this property!’ ” Jeremiah told me later. “I said, ‘Do you really want these properties? Because I’m not so sure that you do. But okay, you can have them. Let’s see what you can do with them that we couldn’t.’ ”

According to the Census Bureau, there are as many as 14.6 million vacant housing units in the United States. The problem of “blighted,” or vacant, properties in places like Philadelphia, or Rochester, New York, or Gary, Indiana, has reached “epidemic levels,” according to a report from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and the Center for Community Progress. But even in, say, San Francisco, a city plagued by a severe housing shortage, there are over sixty thousand vacant units—thirteen times the number of people thought to be sleeping on the streets. Across the country, experts believe there to be hundreds of thousands of vacant properties owned by city and state governments.

The story of how so many homes came to be empty is varied and complex, but it is in large part a story of racism—a footnote in the more familiar tale of the disinvestment and disenfranchisement of African-American neighborhoods following World War II. In Philadelphia, it begins with the massive loss of manufacturing jobs in the Fifties, which prompted many of the city’s working-class Italians and Irish to buy homes in the suburbs, where African Americans had been denied home loans. Between 1950 and 1980, North Philadelphia lost thirty-five thousand homes, some through city officials’ “slum clearance” efforts. But rather than reduce crime or vandalism, the policy’s main effect was to reduce the property values of the homes left standing, eviscerating North Philadelphia’s already shrinking tax base. “The depopulation of the area,” writes the scholar Nancy Kleniewski, “was actually hastened, not slowed, by urban renewal.”

City leaders across the country began referring to black neighborhoods as “cancers” that needed to be eradicated. It was a theory first popularized by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, President Richard Nixon’s adviser on urban and social policy, who in 1970 advocated for the “benign neglect” of impoverished New York City neighborhoods by cutting them off from essential services. Inspired by Moynihan, Philadelphia’s city planning commission chair, Bernard Meltzer, proposed that the city use eminent domain to take over deteriorated blocks in North Philadelphia, letting them “die by cutting off capital investments,” as Kleniewski puts it. Many of the remaining residents in public housing were forcibly relocated; home values decreased to almost nothing. Unable to sell, scores of residents abandoned their houses. The city then “land banked” thousands of the abandoned properties—that is, seized them in the hope that real estate values would go back up, in which case the city would stand to make an enormous amount of money. But, for decades, most of them sat empty, falling further and further into ruin.

In recent years, property values in some sections of North Philadelphia have finally started to rise, and the PHA has begun to cash in. Between 2011 and 2019, the agency sold 1,021 of its property holdings, and only 113 of the sales required the purchaser to provide any affordable housing options to new occupants, according to a Temple University report. In Sharswood, the PHA condemned and seized over 1,300 properties, some 150 of which were occupied homes. Many have simply been boarded up and left vacant. Other lots were sold to private developers who built market-rate apartments.

Bennetch watched the transformation with disbelief. She had begun hanging out in the neighborhood when she was seventeen; there she met her partner, Gerald. They were both homeless, but his family owned a dilapidated house in North Philly worth too little to sell. Bennetch convinced Gerald to fix it up, which entailed clearing out trash and replacing pipes and walls. The couple moved in, and had two children together. Bennetch became a fixture in the neighborhood, instantly recognizable in her brightly colored stretch pants, hijab, and fanny pack—one of the few white faces in a place where 90 percent of residents were black. Now, as the area changed around her, it seemed like war was being waged on her longtime neighbors. She recalled a woman in a PHA row house who was evicted and became homeless, even while her former house sat empty, in perfectly good condition. Other neighbors who were relocated by the PHA saw their homes bulldozed.

In 2016, Bennetch began keeping her list of empty PHA properties, in part because she thought she might be able to sue the city agency for civil-rights violations. Attending protests and city council meetings, Bennetch came to know two other housing organizers: a lawyer named Sterling Johnson and a handyman who goes by the alias Wylie Cunningham. Bennetch and Cunningham, along with some other activists, started investigating and breaking into vacant PHA properties together and confirmed what Bennetch had long suspected: many of the homes were perfectly habitable.

Their key realization was that, unlike many wealthier cities with sky-high rents and housing shortages, Philadelphia had plenty of available homes—the problem was just that residents were too poor to rent or buy them, banks didn’t give loans to rehab decrepit properties, and the public housing authority was too busy auctioning properties for profit to fill them with needy tenants. Fixing the housing crisis, it became clear to them, wasn’t necessarily a matter of building new homes and upzoning—instead, municipal authorities had overlooked an enormous resource that had been there all along: vacant properties. “The really new thing we did was connect the homeless camps directly with the empty homes,” says Johnson. “And as the city increasingly gentrified, we thought this was a way for the poor, and especially the black population, to be able to stay in North Philly. Our dream was to have an occupied house on every block.”

Their plan was as follows: With Bennetch as the point person, the activists would create a land trust—a non-profit that manages property. This land trust would own all of the homes transferred from the PHA and the city, to be held in the trust forever as housing for low-income residents. All of the current squatters would remain in land trust properties, and an advisory board, composed mostly of residents, would establish a set of guidelines by which the land trust would operate.

Bennetch met and discussed the offers with residents of the encampments, along with the other organizers who helped run them. The two camps were messy, contentious affairs rife with violence, mismanaged donations, backstabbing, and infighting, and many resented Bennetch’s position as the person trusted most by city officials. Some activists expressed disappointment that what they believed was a “revolutionary” situation—they imagined the camps were a sort of Paris Commune and citywide insurrection was imminent—was going to be abandoned in exchange for glorified homeless shelters. Others were frustrated by what they saw as Bennetch’s power-hoarding, and her tendency to shout in meetings.

Others living in the camps voiced concerns or objections to the proposal itself—they wanted more houses, they wanted different kinds of houses, they were worried about all the work that would be required of them. But the majority of camp residents supported the deal, sometimes violently so. “There was some prison-hierarchy type shit that emerged,” said Cunningham.

Most tent city residents, however, recognized that the offer to give them houses was unprecedented, and they ratified the two agreements on October 2 and 12. Under Bennetch’s leadership, both camps were vacated by the end of the month and a majority of the remaining camp residents—some 160 people—were moved into previously abandoned buildings that had, almost overnight, gained semi-legal status. Soon, if all went as planned, they’d become part of one of the nation’s largest, and certainly most unorthodox, land trusts. The Princeton professor and activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor called it a “strategic model, and a tactic that should be generalized by housing groups across the country.”

In the wake of the victory, Bennetch’s most urgent task was to set up the non-profit. She also had to find an insurer that would guarantee such a risky venture, and visit and inspect potential properties with city officials in order to reach an agreement on which houses to transfer to the land trust. The city provided almost no money for repairs or maintenance, so the activists would also have to find some way to finance the effort. The PHA promised funds to rehab seven homes on a single block—Westmont Street—and they offered to pay for Bennetch and Cunningham to take a course in non-profit management, but otherwise the activists were provided with virtually no resources.

Bennetch, in consultation with some of the residents, proposed a basic set of principles. There would be no background checks, no drug testing. It was all meant to honor the spirit of the homeless camps, which, after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, had adopted an abolitionist outlook. Felons, sex offenders, addicts—all were welcome. In part, the activists hoped to fill the void left by organizations like Project HOME, which operates a large network of shelters in Philadelphia and has a strict zero-tolerance policy against on-site drug use. “We’ll house anyone, we don’t give a fuck,” is how Cunningham put it to me. “They still deserve housing.”

Meanwhile, city officials didn’t seem to have a clue about which houses they even owned. Some days the mayor’s office would give Bennetch a list of buildings to consider, and she’d meet officials there only to find a vacant lot. One afternoon, she met city employees at a purportedly empty home only to discover that it was occupied by a family who had been living there for twenty-five years. Their toddler was playing in the living room. “I was fucking embarrassed,” Bennetch said. “I’m barging into these people’s homes and I look like a fucking government official come to take their house away from them.” She didn’t know if the city was incompetent or trying to sabotage her—she assumed both.

In January 2021, three months after the deals were struck, I visited several of the occupied homes to see how residents were faring. When I arrived at Terra Allen’s two-story redbrick row house, it was wrapped in no trespassing tape—Halloween decorations she’d left up.

Allen had been homeless since she was eighteen. She’d lived in a shelter with her daughter, Niomii, for two years, but had to leave after the shelter lost funding. Her brother and his girlfriend agreed to take Niomii in, and Allen began sleeping on the sidewalks next to the municipal building downtown. Some nights, she was so cold she cried. She got into fights. Without her daughter she felt like she was losing her mind. “I was so erratic out there. I was so angry at the world, I was so embarrassed,” she said. “It made me not even care about myself no more.”

The house was cluttered and dusty, but structurally sound when Allen moved in, on August 2, 2020. Two nights later, the PHA’s police force arrived in squad cars and tried to evict her. As she celebrated her twenty-sixth birthday with her family, armed officers pushed their way into the house and interrogated her in an upstairs bedroom; only because Bennetch intervened was the eviction halted. Allen spent the next few weeks unable to sleep, spending her nights staring at the front door until sunrise, sometimes in tears, stricken with fear that at any moment the police would return.

But now, six months later, a tentative calm had settled over the house. Allen had found a box of documents in the basement, from which she pieced together that an elderly African-American woman had lived there for decades until she’d died a few years earlier. The building had seemingly sat empty since then and the PHA hadn’t replaced her with a new tenant. As a sort of homage to the woman, and because Allen was broke, she decorated the living room with a half-dozen straw sun hats and other knickknacks the woman had left behind. Niomii was nine now; on a desk in her bedroom, Allen had placed a framed card reading girl boss.

“This house is the best birthday gift I’ve ever gotten,” Allen said. She was seated on a small red thrift store sofa, and she wore a black lives matter face mask. Allen was still adjusting, trying to strike a balance between hope and fear—technically, she was still a squatter until Bennetch completed the paperwork, and who knew when that would happen? But she was also trying to rebuild her life, which required believing that maybe she and Niomii were finally safe. “I’d done lost so much stuff that it just makes me unsettled,” Allen said. “I would never want to go back to them times.” This house, she added, “was a blessing. It still is, every day.”

Two days later, I rode shotgun with Wylie Cunningham on a visit to a row house near Temple University. Cunningham was one of the few activists or residents who knew how to repair and maintain the occupied properties, and for months he’d been working without pay, at one point as much as eighty hours a week hooking up plumbing, electricity, gas, heat, and water, trying to keep all of the residents comfortable. Originally from Los Angeles, he had moved to Philadelphia in 2003, where he squatted an abandoned building with some anarchists. A year later, before the condos arrived, he bought a decrepit house near PHA headquarters, back when you could still buy a ravaged house for a few thousand dollars. He spent several years rebuilding it, becoming a skilled handyman in the process. “I lost my thirties to that house,” he said.

He was a gentrifier, in a sense, and it was precisely because he had the resources to take advantage of a good deal when he found one that he was also afforded the free time to be an organizer, allowing him to live on sporadic repair work and spend the rest of his time volunteering. His activism was fueled partly by his own experiences as a squatter, but also by a desire to stymie the tides of gentrification that had buoyed his own life. The least he could do, he thought, was give his time and labor to the neighbors the city was neglecting.

On the sidewalk, Cunningham was greeted with a first bump by Kane, one of the row house’s residents, as well as Kane’s roommate, James. Kane had gotten out of jail in the summer of 2020. With nowhere to go, he ended up at one of the protest camps. He’d been an aggressive advocate for taking the deal, and moved his tent and possessions into one of the abandoned houses as soon as the camps were disbanded.

At the moment, however, their sewer line was blocked, and Kane couldn’t figure out how to clear it. He’d spent $80 to rent a snake from Home Depot and, like any self-respecting DIY home rehabber, had studied how to use it on YouTube. But it wasn’t working. With a Parliament cigarette pinched between his teeth, he demonstrated his attempts to steer the snake into a hole in the sidewalk.

“I got feces on me,” shouted James as discolored water flew through the air.

“I’ve been in shit for five months,” Kane said, referring to his time in the homeless encampment. “Cleaning out shit from my own toilet is worth it.”

Cunningham pulled a mask over his beard and took control of the snake. He knelt and skillfully steered the tube into the hole in the ground. Within minutes, he had extracted a dozen baby wipes and an unopened can of Natural Ice.

“Give it up for Wiley, y’all,” Kane cheered. Moved to offer a compliment, he added, “Y’all got the empty houses, the steadfastness, plus y’all ain’t pussies.”

After clearing the water line, Kane and Cunningham sat on the stoop to chat. The scene looked like any other home rehab project: there was an empty pizza box and a two-liter bottle of ginger ale on the steps, a bag of trash and a pile of drywall out front. “We don’t look like squatters,” said Kane with pride.

Two young women who appeared to be college students exited the building next door. Its red-and-white façade bore a sign reading luxury student rentals. Kane stared at the women and took a deep drag of his cigarette. He described how he’d lived around here his whole life, in a neighborhood that had been almost entirely black for as long as he could remember. Now that property values had gone up, he felt unwelcome. The police harassed him more often, he said. Baristas at a new café gave him dirty looks when he bought a coffee. “Two, three, not even four years ago there wouldn’t be no fucking Subarus on the block,” he said. “It’d be fucking Crown Victorias.”

In the months following the agreement, Bennetch struggled to adapt to her new role as a bureaucrat, straining under the mountain of paperwork she had to complete to get properties transferred to the land trust. The stress took a physical toll: she came down with a mysterious illness and lost more than thirty pounds. A close friend and longtime community organizer, Ruth Birchett, begged her to move in to her house so she could take care of her, but Bennetch proudly refused. Frighteningly thin, she was often too sick or embarrassed to leave home, which prevented her from scrapping metal, still her primary source of income. Instead, she had returned to a variety of hustles, including convincing a developer who wanted to build on the lot next to her home to give her $200 a month to “protect” it from non-existent vandals. Many of her former acquaintances heard from her only when she posted on Facebook, asking for money so that she could buy winter clothes for her children.

Even Bennetch’s closest allies, like Cunningham, had no idea what was going on. The residents remained in limbo, mostly fending for themselves—not paying anything, living in buildings that were in varying states of decrepitude, and still considered, technically, squatters.

And many of them were struggling. At one building, the porch had been set on fire. At another property, a man was accused of exposing himself to passersby and threatening volunteers. Another resident drew up fake leases and tried to rent out rooms for money.

When I visited Nasir, a former resident of the camps, it was clear that he and his four roommates were finding it difficult to acclimate to their new house. One of them was living in a tent in the basement.

Life had calmed down since they left the camps, but Nasir, like Bennetch and Cunningham, was still caught between the roles of outlaw and upstanding citizen. Nasir felt invested in “home” for the first time, but he also had a new set of pending charges and, because he wasn’t working and could no longer get free food from volunteers at the camps, had taken to shoplifting with his roommates. “Nobody has brought us any type of food,” Nasir told me. “Nobody has come here, really, to check on us.”

If the land trust homes were going to be long-term investments rather than flophouses, the residents were going to need more than Cunningham’s handyman skills. They would need vast resources and social services—mental health counseling, job training, and access to loans or credit—things far beyond what Cunningham or the other activists could provide. But by entrusting residents to implement this radical version of a housing-first approach—the idea that housing should be provided to all who need it, without conditions—activists hoped that residents could at least begin to deal with their issues on their own terms. Sure, there were huge risks involved with doing what they were doing, but the dangers of leaving people on the streets were far greater. In this way, the whole experiment in Philadelphia embodied the national crisis over homelessness: While officials and experts dithered and debated, people in the streets were dying. Whatever dangers accompanied the occupation of these homes, it was certainly a better, if imperfect, alternative to the camps or the sidewalks.

Still, Cunningham wrestled with the question of what exactly his and the other activists’ responsibilities were, especially as he had to increasingly dig into his own meager savings to fund repairs of the occupied homes. “A resident called me at midnight the other night because they were out of toilet paper,” Cunningham told me. “And I was just like, ‘What the fuck?’ The point of this is to do stuff for yourself.” Some weeks, after putting in many hours of unpaid labor, Cunningham wondered if Kelvin Jeremiah and the city had just outsmarted the activists, turning them into service providers and transforming their radical housing experiment into charity that replicated many of the shelter system’s existing problems. “Did they play us?” he said. “Sometimes I don’t know.”

After a year of little visible progress acquiring the proper deeds for the occupied homes, many observers deemed the project a failure. An article in Philadelphia Magazine declared that the historic victory of October 2020 had been squandered: “In the year since the negotiators shook hands and the camps cleared, very little of the deal has been accomplished.” But ten days before Christmas 2021, the first two homes were legally transferred to the land trust. Five more homes on the block were expected to follow. Despite the skepticism of some activists and the local media, the non-profit was finally operational. Bennetch had done it. Here, finally, was proof that vacant homes could be transformed into low-income housing. “Just happy . . . to have two families home for Christmas,” Bennetch texted me that day.

A week later, the PHA held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate. The once-ravaged and desolate Westmont Street bustled with reporters, city officials, union leaders, and curious locals, who snapped photos and marveled at the renovated properties. When Jeremiah stepped up to the podium, towering over the microphone, he thanked the union workers who had repaired the houses on the block for free. He also thanked Bennetch, and noted how the two of them had miraculously gone from conflict to collaboration. “We’re only here because of her,” he said. Jannie Mitchell and Paul Nowell, who were each moving in to one of the new homes, walked up to the podium and signed their leases. Jeremiah handed them their keys, then cut a big blue ribbon strung across the threshold of one of the houses.

Bennetch followed the festivities from home. She had been exposed to COVID-19. “Yea and now my 9 year old has it bad,” she wrote me. “I don’t have symptoms thank God.” Bennetch had enlisted Birchett to speak on her behalf, requesting that she use the celebration as an opportunity to denounce Mayor Jim Kenney for not yet providing the land trust with the promised twenty-five houses. When Jeremiah’s speech concluded, Birchett stepped up to the podium and gave a fiery speech. “You embarrassed me,” Tumar Alexander, the city’s managing director, told her afterward. Bennetch, however, was overjoyed. Sitting with her kids on their couch, Bennetch wept with joy. She couldn’t believe they’d pulled it off.

But the months of illness, stress, isolation, and poverty had worn her down, and shortly after the New Year, her symptoms worsened. She died on February 17, 2022, at age thirty-six. Just the week before, she’d had Birchett put her on speakerphone so she could have her weekly call with Jeremiah about the land trust. She was too weak to speak, so she just listened.

It’s an old activist truism that it’s a liability to have leaders that are too strong, too effective, too persuasive by force of personality alone. If something happens to them, the movement is often devastated. And, indeed, in the weeks and months following Bennetch’s death, the land trust seemed to be in disarray, its future uncertain. Some of the organization’s funds couldn’t be accounted for. And there was chaos at some of the occupied properties: A squat was abandoned after a series of violent incidents. At least a dozen of the homes had been entirely vacated. Kane, angry and confused about why the deeding process was taking so long, had reportedly threatened to burn Bennetch’s house down, after which his relationship with Cunningham soured.

And yet, the land trust still managed to deed houses, fundraise, and protect the occupants of its homes. Nearly every resident of the two encampments was provided with housing. About fifty individuals remain housed in homes Bennetch helped them to occupy. Six mothers and their children stayed on, and several have regained legal custody of their children as a result of securing housing. Eight additional properties will soon gain their deeds and officially join the land trust, and the group recently received a $95,000 grant from the Oak Foundation.

Max Rameau, an organizer who joined the board in September 2022, predicts more land takeovers in the future, especially if the country enters another full-blown recession. “Right now there’s no other way for poor people to obtain houses,” he says. “It’s so clear how the system is rigged—working some minimum-wage job won’t get anyone a home. Nobody but the rich can afford to buy land.” To Rameau, the experiment in Philadelphia proved that takeovers were a viable strategy. “Two years ago, if I went and said, ‘Go take over land and buildings,’ no one would listen to me. But now we can say, ‘Look, they did this, and it worked,’ ” he said. “There’s homeless people on one side of the street, and peopleless houses on the other side of the street. At a certain point, we say we can connect these two and we don’t need the government to do it. In fact, we can do it better.” By 2030, Rameau hopes that the land trust will grow to include up to a thousand formerly abandoned homes, which he admits is wildly ambitious, but not impossible.

However modestly, some city officials seem to be, for the first time in decades, willing to rethink the role that abandoned properties might play in alleviating the nation’s housing crisis. In October 2020, the PHA declared a one-year moratorium on auctioning off properties to developers, and in March 2022, they, alongside city councilman Darrell L. Clarke—in front of whose home Bennetch had once led a protest dressed as a troll doll—announced a program to rehabilitate fifty-three derelict houses in North Philadelphia and sell them below market rate to lower-income families. “The activists did something that I frankly was unable to do,” Jeremiah told me. “They brought to the forefront the dire need that we have in the city for affordable housing. And we appreciated that. We didn’t appreciate how they did it, but we appreciated that they did it.”

Elsewhere, other activists have also begun to reexamine what might be done with empty housing stock. In Oakland, California, the councilwoman Carroll Fife has begun identifying empty properties that she hopes to include in community land trusts for hundreds of low-income Bay Area residents. In New York City, the housing authority plans on repossessing many of the city’s estimated two thousand “zombie homes”—many of which were foreclosed on in the wake of the 2008 recession—and converting them into affordable housing. “Imagine you, me, and a million of our friends took action and occupied empty houses nationwide,” Rebecca Parson, a recent congressional candidate in Washington, said in a campaign ad. She was partly inspired, she told me, by the efforts in Philadelphia.

Some critics believed that by breaking the law and taking over houses owned by the city and the PHA, the activists and homeless had been rewarded for their criminality, and unfairly jumped the line, ahead of the fourteen thousand people on the PHA waitlist for subsidized housing. But the competition, perhaps, was a function of the artificial scarcity created by the PHA’s wrongheaded priorities. So while it was technically true that people like Terra Allen and Kane had jumped the line, the existence of such a long line didn’t make any sense to begin with. The activists had never wanted to take homes away from others in need; they wanted everyone to take homes for themselves. Their actions forced officials to answer a question that resonates in many American cities: Why is anyone living on the streets when there are empty homes?

In December, I checked in with Allen. She’d been in her house for over two years, and she’d given birth to another child. The stability provided by the house had allowed her to reunite her family and rebuild her life. She’d gotten a job working for an urban farm, which fed local families like hers. The biggest challenges in her life were now fairly commonplace—getting her children to and from school and daycare, paying for car insurance and utilities. Her house is one of the eight properties that will soon officially join the land trust. With this newfound security, she had finally stopped sitting up all night staring at her door, waiting for the police to barge in. “That old terror has died down,” she told me.

Still, sometimes she got anxious that this gift—the gift of a home—could vanish at any second, and she’d be back on the streets, back in hell. When she started to feel this way, she told me that she liked to look at the straw sun hats she had hung on the walls—they gave her courage. Allen liked to think of the former resident as her “spiritual godmother,” and the decorations as a tribute. On nights when the old fear of eviction crept back into her mind, she said the woman’s presence comforted her. Allen didn’t think the woman would be mad that she and Niomii were living here—she thought she’d probably be happy that an African-American mother and her family were putting the house to good use. After so much time on her own, Allen said, it was nice to imagine that someone was looking out for her, even if she was a ghost.

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August 2020

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