Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cheap: The High Cost & In Cheap We Trust

Squatters Equal Freegans?

Lauren Weber, in In Cheap We Trust, devotes a chapter to Adam Weissman and his freegans here in Brooklyn.She went on a trash tour with them in 2008 and even met some women from New Jersey who were inspired to check trash tours after seeing them on Oprah (p. 242). Freegans:

"practice an extremem version of low-cost living. A freegan (the term is a play on vegan) might Dumpster-dive for her food, squat in an unoccupied building rather than pay rent, bike or walk instead of drive, give away and optain clothes at Really Really Free Markets, grow an urban garden, and share skills like computer repair and wild-food foraging." (p. 231).

Squatting, in fact, is a time-honored NYC tradition. The brother of one of my oldest friends lives in a formerly abandoned apartment building that originally began as a squat. The squatters (he was one of them) successfully persuaded NYC to accept their occupation and they now legally live in the building. However, since this took place before the 21st century, my friend's brother was referred to as an illegal squatter rather than a "freegan".

There are also some lower-profile squatters in Queens. I've read online articles about impoverished and homeless individuals who moved into foreclosed homes in Queens. They are growing their own food and living a communal, although off-the-grid, existence. Since I have also seen people in Queens living in public parks and in Amtrak tunnels, I am inclined to be supportive of the communal households, which provide a measure of protection against the weather and starvation.

As I see it, the difference between the freegans and the Florida squatters is that the freegans use the media in an extremely sophisticated fashion. According to Weber:

"Freegan.info welcomes news crews and reporters, even when the coverage ends up being tawdry or hostile. It's kind of working; the website at one point has six thousand subscribers, and trash tours regularly attract twenty to fourty newcomers on top of a rotating groups of a dozen or so regulars." (p. 242).

The Floridians, in contrast, appear to be working families with small children. The man in the NY Times photo is mowing a conventional lawn, not weeding vegetables while clad in a t-shirt bearing an ironic statement. The squatters pay rent and have signed lease agreements acknowleging the fact that they know that their landlord does not legally own the property. Instead of openly proclaiming that they want to become a full-fledged political movement, the Floridians are quietly living off-center values (they are legally squatting)within externally conventional lifestyles under the guidance of a Christian real estate agent rather than a Brooklyn radical.

Is it cheaper for states to allow people to squat in foreclosed house? It is expensive to house individuals and families in shelters. In addition, children in particular are affected by having to leave their home, their friends, possibly their school. In the long-term, these children may lead better lives if allowed to grow up in a secure living environment. Furthermore, empty houses can destroy a neighborhood by serving as havens for wildlife or criminal activity. In the end, the cheapest and best way to boost the economy may be to allow squatters to take over and improve abandoned homes.

3 comments:

Oscar W. said...

As long as the squatters or freegans aren't running crack dens, I don't see the harm. What about them bootlegging utilities, though?

Tracey said...

The people in Florida seem very law-abiding - they probably have legal utility accounts. From what I've read about the squatters in the Rockaways, they seem to be living fairly primitive existences. I can't answer for the freegans- Weber does not tackle that question in the book.

khaat said...

I have no problem with either community: one is bucking consumerism and living what they believe in -whether it appeals to others outside their group or not- where the Floridians are families trying to keep their heads above water.

the radical vs Christian bit i find divisive; one group is not better than the other. And sometimes-though not all- it is the radical group that shakes things up, brings out an awareness of a different possibility, or perspective. the core idea is rarely swallowed whole, but then mellowed into the "mainstream" where life is improved (or not).