Filed under: Analysis, Capitalism, Housing, US
With a retail crash imminent, will a new wave of squatting break out as more and more retail and office space becomes vacant?
The fourth wealthiest person in the world recently predicted  that the pandemic will close both brick-and-mortar retail stores and office space. Companies that can survive through employees working from home will have less incentive to maintain physical offices. Rather than keep them open while waiting for the pandemic to pass, they will likely reduce office square footage or close them completely. He believes that neither of these changes will reverse after the pandemic recedes.
This situation presents opportunities for widespread squatting. That is, there will be empty buildings throughout the country owned by banks, real estate companies, and absentee landlords that will be ripe for living in without paying rent. In the era of gentrification and economic depression, this development couldn’t have come sooner. Average rents have more than doubled while wages remain relatively the same. In Black and Latinx neighborhoods, people are spending on average nearly half their income on rent.  As the unemployment rate mounts due to the pandemic, housing will become increasingly dire.
Squatting has long been a tool of radicals, dropouts, and other marginalized people. The Exarchia neighborhood in Athens, Greece is a hub of anarchism where anarchists have opened multiple squats , enabling them to dedicate less time to work and more to embracing life and attacking capitalism.  After WW2 in the UK, there was a mass squatting movement by returning soldiers who found no new housing built in over 5 years and many structures bombed out.  The Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil is composed of at least 150,000 families struggling together as squatters.  The Autonomen in Europe flourished due to their ability to take vacant space.
The Autonomen originated in Berlin. They were an anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian political tendency that largely rejected formal organizations. Inspired by the May ’68 uprising in France and Situationist ideas generally, they took the traditional struggle against capitalism and the state and dispersed it through many aspects of daily life. Rather than focus on workplace organizing as the Left consistently did, the Autonomen looked for new sites of struggle in the first-person experience of daily life. They developed ways of collective living and dropped out of their assigned social roles. Time freed up by squatting or collective living allowed them to struggle against nuclear energy developments and NATO, experiment with non-hierarchical communal life, fight neo-Nazis, and launch other projects. Their struggles occasionally took the form of street fighting to protect their squats from eviction, where they arguably invented the black bloc.
After WW2, Berlin was militarized and split along Cold War lines, prompting many Germans to leave the city. Following a global recession in the mid-Seventies, Germany did not return to its pre-recession unemployment levels.  In Berlin there were financial scandals and an informal capital strike by big landlords in response to rent control laws. They actually had incentive to abandon their buildings and get low-interest loans from the city to build expensive condominiums. All these factors led to there being hundreds of unoccupied housing and office buildings.  Material conditions were ripe for large-scale squatting and, subsequently, the potential to quit work and experiment with the revolution of everyday life.
Their situation parallels ours, especially now. While Sixties social movements and the counterculture occurred amid general economic prosperity, the Autonomen emerged during economic downturn. Squatting in Hamburg began during the 1980-1982 recession, as it did in Amsterdam, another significant hub of Autonomen. Despite a housing shortage there in the early Eighties, there was no dearth of habitable space. According to The Economist, “Property speculators, for their part, have left property deliberately unoccupied to avoid carrying out repairs or in hope of an upturn in the market.”  Squatters subsequently took over empty office buildings.  Similarly, anarchy in the United States was present in New York City’s Lower East Side during the 80’s and 90’s where there were vacant buildings and a large squatting milieu.
Like now, there was low housing vacancy and economic recession. People had to live somewhere, so some chose the buildings that were empty. A retail investor recently claimed  that newly emptied office and retail space will be converted into storage, online fulfillment centers, and multifamily housing. But that remains to be seen.
Note: Part of this essay is taken from one I previously wrote – The Hollowing of Anarchy: Gentrification
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