City foreclosures open space for squatters

An advocacy group takes over abandoned homes to be used by homeless.

Vacant homes across Minneapolis provide one human rights organization with the opportunity to assist people who fall through the cracks by illegally placing them in the empty homes. The Poor PeopleâÄôs Economic Human Rights Campaign works nationally to organize ways to end poverty in the United States. In Minneapolis, the PPEHRC uses abandoned property owned by the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development to house individuals who have nowhere else to go. PPEHRC National Organizer Cheri Honkala has been taking over homes across the country for 20 years. A Twin Cities native, Honkala said she used to move families into hundreds of vacant houses on any given day during the 1980s. After spending time away from Minneapolis, Honkala returned two years ago to resume her work. Currently, 13 homes are in use and more will be infiltrated, if necessary. âÄúAs long as there is a need, we will continue,âÄù Honkala said. In Minneapolis, where 3,077 homes were foreclosed in 2008, there is plenty of room, and PPEHRC hasnâÄôt had much trouble with local law enforcement, which Honkala attributed to location secrecy and neighbor cooperation. According to Minneapolis spokesman Matt Laible, Minneapolis police have not seen many cases of squatters actually moving into abandoned properties, though there was one instance within the last month. Honkala was cited for trespassing along with other organizers in the instance Laible referred to. Honkala said that was the only time they were removed from a house. Jeremy Hanson, communications director in Mayor R.T. RybakâÄôs office , said the city has to âÄúbalance public safety with support for people who are homeless.âÄù Hanson said the city has established avenues to end homelessness and people are encouraged to use them, but the city also has to enforce its property laws; trespassing is illegal. âÄúEven if it is a foreclosed property, it still belongs to somebody,âÄù he said. PPEHRC organizers try to find alternatives when people first come to them in need of a place to stay. Often, they canâÄôt find available space in shelters. Honkala said they also have trouble placing couples because family shelters require that there be children. These obstacles may lead to the separation of the couple. âÄúThe fundamental problem with shelters is they separate families,âÄù Honkala said. When no legal alternatives are available, the campaign finds an abandoned home where the family can live. She said organizers use HUD houses because HUD typically uses its resources to set up shelters and programs, but PPEHRC would rather the federal government directly open the houses it owns to homeless people. âÄúDuring bad economic times, we think resources need to go to make these houses available to families. Over the years, theyâÄôve [HUD] created a lot of reasons to set up shelters. We think the fundamental need is access to affordable housing,âÄù Honkala said. The Minneapolis HUD Field Office declined comment on this article. Hubert H. Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs Assistant Professor Ryan Allen, who began researching the location of high concentrations of foreclosures in August 2008, said large quantities of vacant properties can cause problems because they may encourage crime and reduce property values for other homes in the neighborhood. âÄúI think most would agree that itâÄôs preferable to have someone in the property,âÄù Allen said. Wendy Menken, board president for the Southeast Como Neighborhood Improvement Association, said the presence of empty homes in the neighborhood, whether foreclosed or just on the market, generally raises concerns about how the property will be used, including âÄúsquatting, copper theft [and] gas line interruptions.âÄù Menken said Southeast Como does not yet have enough foreclosures to affect other homes in the neighborhood. Chad Giblin , a Southeast Como resident, lives next to a home that was foreclosed last year. He said the property was sitting empty while the bank finished the foreclosure. He said a relative of the former property owner, along with a few other individuals, moved into the home illegally. They occupied the property until they were forced to leave. Giblin said he didnâÄôt see a problem with the illegal use of the vacant property. âÄúWhy not?âÄù he said. âÄúWhy make them homeless?âÄù The housing crisis reaches all across the United States. Last summer, a piece of federal legislation signed by President George W. Bush allocated funds to cities and states across the nation to help them cope with foreclosures. From this legislation, the Neighborhood Stabilization Program granted Minneapolis $5.6 million to be invested in foreclosed and abandoned homes. Prevention is also a high priority for officials, as education and financial counseling for individuals looking to buy a home are available. Through the program, greater Minnesota received about $39 million of the federal money. Officials recently finalized plans to use these funds; Minneapolis will receive an additional $8.5 million, Hanson said. Neighborhoods in north and south central Minneapolis will see the majority of funds because of the high concentrations of foreclosures in those areas. Menken said Southeast Como will not see any of those funds because of the low number of foreclosures, but she is concerned that as the economy worsens, the neighborhoodâÄôs situation will follow suit. âÄúA lot of the foreclosures in the metro area have been among the speculative investor-type rental properties,âÄù Menken said. âÄúIf the rental market continues to soften in the area, that trend may catch up with us as well.âÄù