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Remodeling Anarchy

A band of activists fixes up a vacant home in protest, sparking a debate over squatter's rights amid a national housing crisis.

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It's the kind of extreme home makeover that'd make Ty Pennington stand up and wave his T-square: Caring amateur carpenters descend on a long-neglected house, repair damaged drywall, prime and paint the walls, spend thousands at local hardware stores on new appliances and plumbing, and call city building officials to schedule long-neglected inspections to bring the house up to occupancy code requirements.

What homeowner wouldn't stand curbside, tears welling in the eyes, grateful to the band of dedicated home remodelers responsible for breathing new life into a once-dilapidated property?

Try Oliver Lawrence, owner of Bayou Properties, who happened upon his house at 2913 Montrose Ave. last Monday — it was the first time he'd been by the vacant house in about two months — to discover his house not only fixed up, but also occupied by the same merry band responsible for its transformation.

Twenty-four hours later, Lawrence, who owns dozens of properties around the city — many in arrears to the city's property tax collector and potentially in violation of city building codes — was indeed curbside. Instead of crying joyful tears, he sat stoic in his dent-afflicted Ford F-150, silver-tinted windows rolled up to avoid questioning reporters. On his lawn, police sought to sort out whether they were intervening in an act of vandalism or an organized protest.

Seems the guerilla-style home makeover Lawrence received courtesy of a group of community housing activists led by Mo Karn wasn't going to be for free after all.

Effectively ending the evening's confrontation, a city building inspector showed up and slapped an orange condemnation sticker on the front door's etched glass window. Police did not arrest Karn, though through a spokesman Lawrence said he planned to swear out warrants against the trespassers.

“We're not fixing it up for [Lawrence's] benefit,” says Karn of her protest-inspired remodel job. “We're fixing it up for ours and the community's benefit. I think there needs to be a way for low-income people to get permanent housing where they're not being exploited by a landlord.”

Last Tuesday's protest actually began in January, when Karn and a handful of her roommates at 2911 Montrose — they pay to rent that house — decided to do something about the vacant, neglected house next door.

They began researching the homeowner, Lawrence, and found he'd last taken interest in July 2005 when he pulled a number of city building permits. After that, his interest seemed to end. No renovation. No follow-up building inspections. He paid none of the nearly $6,000 in taxes that have amassed since he took ownership of the house in December 2004.

Karn's outrage grew. Already a dedicated community activist — she has a degree in anarchy from Hampshire College in Massachusetts, where she wrote her final thesis on protest movements in Richmond — Karn saw Lawrence's seemingly flagrant misuse of property rights as emblematic of a much larger issue likely to become magnified if the national economic crisis continues to worsen.
I
n a way, Karn and her rogue urban renewers weren't renovating a home, they were building their Alamo, where they planned to make their stand in defense of Richmond neighborhoods.

“Nowadays a lot of middle-class families, through no fault of their own ... can't make the mortgage payments and all their hard work is going out the window as well,” she says, laying blame equal to that of the lagging economy at the feet of property owners such as Lawrence for blighting neighborhoods.

“There are a lot of forces pushing people into a situation where their neighborhoods and homes are coming out worse for wear,” Karn complains. “This is a time when we should be building strength in our communities.”

Of course, in true anarchist fashion, the views espoused by Karn and her supporters are a bit difficult to rectify with commonly accepted principles of property ownership. What they advocate, what they hope to accomplish with their own attempt to squat on Lawrence's property, is hostile takeover of a neglected home.

Oddly, Karn's views are less fringe than they used to be.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, recently gave a floor speech in Congress recommending civil disobedience in the face of the foreclosure tsunami: “So I say to the American people, you be squatters in your own homes. You don't have to leave.”

Karn goes further, saying homeless Americans should become squatters in other peoples' homes. In other words, misuse of property by an owner who neglects an unoccupied dwelling should mean that a more suitable candidate — regardless of financial means — should have the option to usurp ownership simply by caring for it. Or perhaps by a city program that gives preference to low-income families at foreclosure or city delinquent property tax sales.

“You've got to hand it to them — good for them, they made a point,” says Rachel Flynn, Richmond's director of community development. “You shouldn't take the law into your hands, but they're renegades and that's how they sought to solve it. Let's hope the outcome makes it worth it.”

Blighted property may soon become a bigger problem in Richmond than it already is, with or without Lawrence's help. Indeed, soon it may be banks who become the biggest holders of vacant residential real estate in the city.

Richmond, along with Henrico and Chesterfield counties, are foreclosure hot zones, according to RealtyTrac Inc, a national online aggregator of real estate and foreclosure data. With city-wide foreclosures and sales up from a half-dozen in February of 2008 to more than 45 last month, and with one in every 478 homes in the city either in foreclosure or pre-foreclosure, the number of unoccupied homes could soar in coming months.

“Unfortunately, we're seeing a lot more abandoned homes as the foreclosure crisis continues,” says Hollie Cammarasana, a spokeswoman with the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. “You're seeing there being a greater need for affordable rental housing. There's increased demand there.”

Federal aid, like the $38.7 million in housing stabilization money that allows purchase of foreclosed homes in some areas, or a state measure currently wending its way through the General Assembly to provide incentives to property owners to improve derelict properties, mostly provide aid to “slumlords” such as Lawrence, says Helen O'Beirne with Richmond-based Housing Opportunities Made Equal.

“It doesn't keep people in their homes, but it helps get some of the homes back on the market,” O'Beirne says of the federal program, while the state proposal has lawmakers asking “why are we incentivising these people who have been blighting our communities.”

Another $75 billion program announced last week by President Barack Obama more directly aids nine million homeowners through refinancing, but that proposal has met with stiff criticism for playing favorites with what one national political commentator called “losers' mortgages.”

And even O'Beirne, like Flynn, says that while she sympathizes with Karn's political statement, “just because you fixed a house doesn't mean it's yours.”

Right or wrong Karn respectfully disagrees, but also turns the morality of her squatter's protest on its head. “We don't just blindly respect the idea of property rights,” she says. “This guy doesn't take care of his property and the community has to suffer for it?” S

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