Fallout: The Financial Crisis

Miami’s homeless inhabit vacant homes

Marketplace Staff Jan 28, 2009
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Fallout: The Financial Crisis

Miami’s homeless inhabit vacant homes

Marketplace Staff Jan 28, 2009
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KAI RYSSDAL: We were talking around here today about how the sour economy is changing the way this country looks. There are more vacant storefronts or, in stores that are still open, huge signs practically begging customers to come in.

And it’s not just cities and businesses. Foreclosed houses are falling apart. Lawns are overgrown — the ones that aren’t dead because nobody’s watering them.

But in Miami, homeless activists are using those vacant homes to solve the problem of neglect — and to solve another problem too as Marketplace’s Dan Grech reports.


DAN GRECH: Marie Nadine Pierre is a 39-year-old mother of four. Today, she’s moving into a renovated three-bedroom house.

GRECH: Are you nervous?

MARIE NADINE PIERRE: Yeah.

She’s nervous because what she’s doing is illegal. Her new home, in a middle-class Miami neighborhood, is a foreclosure owned by a bank. By moving in, she could be arrested for trespassing, breaking and entering, possibly even burglary.

She’s taking the risk because her husband was deported to the Bahamas in September, and her salary as a university researcher wasn’t enough to cover the mortgage. She lost her home to foreclosure and took her family to a shelter.

GRECH: Is this it? Is this the house?

MAX RAMEAU: This is the house. It looks like it was painted relatively recently, so it’s in very, very good condition on the outside.

That’s Max Rameau. He’s co-founder of Take Back the Land, a group that moves homeless people into people-less homes.

RAMEAU: This is going to be our seventh move-in into a foreclosed unit, our seventh what we call “liberation,” where we’re liberating a vacant, empty house.

His group keeps a pro bono lawyer on stand-by. But so far the lawyer hasn’t been called in. He says neighbors haven’t complained about earlier “liberations.” They seem to prefer a squatting family over a vacant house.

In an earlier move-in, a neighbor loaned electricity through an extension cord. Recently, the group got a request to move a squatter in. Rameau takes Pierre on a tour.

RAMEAU: We have fully functional water. The electrical system is still intact. So we could actually have electricity turned on with the electric company.

Then Rameau discovers evidence of looting.

RAMEAU: There used to be a big air conditioning compressor outside. And now there’s no compressor here. So things are going to slowly start to be removed from the house, which of course is going to decrease its value.

He says within weeks the copper wiring would have been torn out of the walls. Take Back the Land started its “home liberation” campaign as a form of civil disobedience, to highlight the lack of affordable housing in Miami.

But to its surprise, no one’s fighting back — not the neighbors, not the police, sometimes not even the banks that own the homes.

Aurora Loan Services, a subsidiary of Lehman Brothers, has been told that Pierre is living on its property. But the bank has left her and her family alone.

Aurora Loan Services did not comment.

At the end of the tour, Rameau hands Pierre a set of keys.

RAMEAU: So these are the keys. So you have the only set of keys.

PIERRE: Oh, wow.

RAMEAU: So you have the only set of keys.

PIERRE: Oh, thank you. Oh, my goodness. I haven’t had keys in months. Oh, I’m a human being now. I’m an adult. I’m emancipated. I didn’t have a key before, but now, you know, I can come in and go as I please.

Since Pierre moved in, the looting has stopped. An agency is helping her find a more permanent place to stay.

This month, she plans to move her family out of this liberated house and back into a room of her own.

In Miami, I’m Dan Grech for Marketplace.

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