Protests, occupations, and “takebacks” of unused public housing: Activists notch wins with militant tactics

A photo of Bennetch speaking at a rally

Philadelphia resident Jennifer Bennetch used militant measures to protest her city’s practice of selling off public housing units. She helped organize takebacks, getting families back into vacant homes. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Bennetch

This article was first published by Street Roots on February 24th.

Spurred by deepening housing, homelessness and gentrification crises, a nationwide wave of militant housing activism is growing as its successes go viral.

In 2019, when Moms 4 Housing took over a vacant home in Oakland, California, activists across the country learned of the victory on social media, in the press and through national activist networks. They adapted the approaches from this occupation and others like it and put them into practice, each victory adding to the momentum.

The seeds of the movement were planted in 2015, when Jennifer Bennetch noticed the Philadelphia Housing Authority, a public agency, was selling off an ever-increasing number of her neighborhood’s public housing units. Families that had lived in the area Bennetch’s whole life were now overflowing out of shelters as gentrification exploded, she said.

Bennetch started attending the Housing Authority’s board meetings, but years later, her efforts materialized into nothing, so she took a new approach.

“I started off really humble and going, trying to talk to people,” she told Street Roots. “You just get ignored. Nothing changes like that, and so I kind of became more militant over time.”

She ultimately became involved in a highly publicized battle for housing — complete with protest occupations, public housing takeovers, failed negotiations, targeted harassment and last-minute back-channel deals, all documented in the press and in volleys of competing press conferences.

Bennetch, who now lives with her husband and kids in the city’s Sharswood neighborhood, was homeless for seven years after aging out of the foster care system. She co-founded #OccupyPHA in early 2019, and it soon began a protest encampment outside of the Housing Authority’s new $45 million headquarters.

Though it yielded no concessions, the five-month occupation, which Bennetch explained was to fight the mass privatization of the Housing Authority’s public housing stock and to disband the city’s police department, ended up playing a key role in an eventual win. It was during that occupation that Bennetch was introduced to many of the people and organizations that would later form a winning coalition.

That coalition, Philadelphia Housing Action, continued the work, launching another protest encampment, this time in a central and historic area near the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Starting last year on June 10 with just five people, the protest encampment, which coincided with the George Floyd uprising in the city, swelled to more than 150 people in just a few days.

Releasing a list of eight demands relating to disbanding the city’s police force and providing permanent housing to houseless and low-income Philadelphians, the occupation proved effective at gaining significant attention.

Seeing this, the group decided it was an ideal time to go public with another project it had been working on.

In between the two protest occupations, Bennetch and others had been compiling a list of vacant Housing Authority-owned properties around the city and, earlier in the year, secretly started helping families move back into the vacant, publicly owned homes.

In a video announcing the takebacks, Bennetch explained to left-wing media outlet Unicorn Riot that because the Housing Authority was letting “a lot of vacant, viable homes” run down before selling them off to private developers, the coalition has “been supporting families (in) making these vacant homes that are meant to house families anyway into their homes.”

The story erupted nationally, and the city called the group to negotiate but offered no permanent housing, Bennetch said. Soon after, the group started another occupation, this time in a soon-to-be-developed lot across from the Housing Authority’s headquarters.

By July, the ever-expanding, multipronged approach of the group and the measures the city took in trying to fight them off were a major story, frequently detailed in The Philadelphia Enquirer, WHYY and other media outlets.

The group’s efforts prompted the city to call for a second round of negotiations, but those again stalled. Recalling the talks, Bennetch told Street Roots that tensions boiled over, and at one meeting she announced, “Can y’all hurry up? I got to go move another family into one of your houses.”

In another, she told Philadelphia’s mayor, “Just lock me the fuck up right now — ’cause I’m not going to stop. Just do it. I’m going to break into houses today.”

After months of gridlock, the wins began in October.

Activists had jeopardized a $52 million development the agency had slated for a lot they were occupying, and the city needed them out in a matter of days to salvage the deal. The Housing Authority offered nine homes to be put into a community-controlled land trust as well as amnesty for people squatting in Housing Authority-owned homes, all in exchange for the camp across the street from their headquarters to be disbanded.

The group accepted the offer, but the saga wasn’t over.

“We had to close the camp down in like four days so that they wouldn’t lose the deal,” said Bennetch, “so we just took over all their houses that weekend and just moved everybody in some more flats.”

Resolution to the larger camp in the center of the city followed this same arc. About a week later, she got a call from the Housing Authority’s CEO and Philadelphia’s managing director. The pair offered the coalition 50 additional units and temporary housing options for people in the meantime, Bennetch said.

After some debate, the group accepted the offer and cleared the camp, and like last time, the former residents moved out of the camp and into more vacant Housing Authority-owned housing.

“God, I think we moved like 60 people into vacant PHA houses that weekend, like that week alone,” Bennetch recalled.

By September, the group had won 79 houses, all placed into a land trust to be permanent housing for houseless and low-income Philadelphians. News of the win spread quickly as it was covered by national news outlets.

Philadelphia Housing Action told Street Roots the group was inspired by Oakland’s Moms 4 Housing. In turn, the Philadelphia activists’ win has influenced other groups nationwide.

And while the Philadelphia activists’ massive win may be the largest of the movement so far, it isn’t an isolated event.

Portland’s own Red House on Mississippi Eviction Defense has been successful in holding off police efforts to evict the residents and in raising enough money to purchase the house from the developer who owns it.

In the El Sereno neighborhood on the east side of Los Angeles, Reclaiming Our Homes took over 14 vacant Caltrans-owned homes that the state agency had acquired for a since-abandoned freeway expansion plan. In November, after more than six months holding them down, the city partly capitulated and let the reclaimers legally stay in the houses.

And in Oakland, Moms 4 Housing made national headlines in late 2019 when the group of houseless Black mothers took over a vacant house in West Oakland. In January 2020, they were evicted, but through a deal between the developer and the Oakland Community Land Trust, they came to own the house and turned it into transitional housing for other homeless mothers.

And while all of those wins are remarkable because of the concrete concessions they forced, many other groups’ wins required no concessions.

Tacoma Housing Now housed over 40 homeless people in a motel for five nights amid a serious cold spell. KC Tenants, a group based in Kansas City, Missouri, blockaded and shut down an eviction court in October. And a protest organized by New Orleans Renters Rights Assembly scored a similar win, shutting down an eviction court in late July.

Although this wave and some of its inciting forces are new, the tactics are not unprecedented. In the aftermath of the 2008 Great Recession, similar actions sprung up, including the “Take Back The Land” movement, which placed families in newly foreclosed houses around the country.

In 1990, the National Union of the Homeless pulled off a large-scale simultaneous takeover of vacant public housing in eight cities across the country. The group’s occupation is documented from the inside in Skylight Films’ “Takeover” by Pamela Yates and Peter Kinoy.

And even beyond the context of housing, takeovers have been a powerful tool in militant activism for a number of causes, from the American Indian Movement in the 1970s to Columbia University’s 1968 student uprising.

Portland also has an eventful history of militant housing activism dating back to the early 2000s, when unhoused activists took on the city’s sit-lie laws by marching as a convoy from one location to another to set up camp.

MILITANT MEASURES: Militant housing activism is nothing new in Portland

To Jaboa Lake, a former Portlander who now serves as a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress’ Poverty to Prosperity Program, it’s no surprise that these approaches have reemerged now amid such a deep crisis.

Lake co-authored a recent report for the center, titled “Kicking Folks Out While They’re Down,” which looked at how the government’s pandemic response is worsening evictions and homelessness.

“(It’s) really up to lawmakers to make sure that people are protected,” she told Street Roots, “and until that happens, people on the ground are going to do what they need to do to survive.”

To Lake, militant housing activism groups are meeting people’s essential and immediate needs.

“These are the type of groups that are central to saving lives. These are the types of groups that are saying, ‘Our community has a need, we have our list of demands so that you know what they are, but in the meantime, we need to do what we need to do to survive,’” she said.

This rings true for Reclaiming Our Homes organizer Martha Escudero. She told Street Roots she’s partaking in direct action because economic crises “have driven us to this point.” She said she doesn’t want to break the law, “but if the laws are unjust, I feel like it’s my duty to do this.”

A photo of a reclaimed home in El Sereno
In the El Sereno neighborhood of Los Angeles, Reclaiming Our Homes took over 14 vacant homes that California’s transportation agency had acquired for a since-abandoned freeway expansion plan. This is the first home the activists took. Photo courtesy of Martha Escudero

Before taking over a vacant home, Escudero was working as a perinatal case manager, but still ended up homeless with her two young daughters, bouncing between friends’ couches. Some of the same problems she had encountered for years at work as a social worker trying to help her clients were now her own.

And that’s when she saw what Moms 4 Housing was doing in Oakland.

“I was really inspired, them being moms as well, and just that they had the courage to do this for their children. And so I was like, if they can do it, I’m gonna do it too.”

For Escudero, the goal wasn’t just to get housing for her family but to get everyone, especially the most vulnerable, housed.

“We are all working towards the same goal, which is housing as a human right and having housing provided for people,” she told Street Roots about the national wave of militant housing activism.

She emphasized that the fight is about sustainable alternatives to the capitalist system, autonomy and community control of land and housing.

But, she said, “to me, it’s more personal. I like to have personal relationships with humans and to really care about them. It’s about love. … If you have a support system and people power, anything is possible.”

Issues |Eviction|Housing|Permanent Supportive Housing

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