Here's a review I wrote recently of Amy Starecheski's excellent Ours to Lose: When Squatters Became Homeowners in New York City, published in 2016 by the University of Chicago Press. Amy is speaking on her book Thursday, Nov. 30, 2018 at The Potter's House, at 6:30 PM.
In Ours to Lose: When Squatters Became Homeowners in New York City, Amy Starecheski describes what happened when squatters in eleven apartment buildings on New York’s Lower East Side decided to become the legal owners of their homes through converting them into affordable housing cooperatives. It’s a riveting tale of the remarkable experiences of squatters in New York City. But really Starecheski tells a much larger story, about how we understand property and home, that reaches far beyond the specific time and place of the Lower East Side of the last few decades. Ultimately, Starecheski wants to know if it’s possible to create spaces for living outside of capitalism. Ours to Lose helps think that question through.
Starecheski, an anthropologist, uses oral history to tell the conflicting stories of property on the Lower East Side. Though she expertly weaves theoretical and empirical literature into her tale, the book revolves around the accounts and analyses of the 25 squatters with whom she conducts oral histories. Their stories cover decades of history, detailing how they took over the abandoned buildings in the 1970s, how they battled to repair and keep them throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, and how, in the 2000s, they final decided to take legal ownership of the buildings through the process of converting them to limited-equity cooperatives – an ownership form that would allow the housing to remain affordable for years to come. The stories these diverse people tell do not add up to one neat conclusion. Rather, Starecheski gives us a chronicle of tensions and contradictions. And the way she theorizes these tensions makes Ours to Lose essential reading.
One important tension revolves around the question of labor. Squatting enabled people to do other things with their time than work at waged labor. But living in a squat could require significant work and time, albeit unwaged – efforts spent repairing their homes, and doing the intense social labor of living together in a precarious situation. This labor was performed unevenly: some squatters worked long hours on their homes, while others drank their days away. Work on the squats was gendered, and classed; over time, as the squats began to move through the legalization process, bureaucratic labor became more highly valued than physical labor. Once the squats went legal, their residents were then saddled with debt – which pushed members further into waged labor. What is the relationship between home, the work of subsistence, and waged labor under capitalism? This book helps answer the question.
A second tension was the degree to which the new co-ops should be subject to resale restrictions. Some squatters came out in favor of allowing prices for co-op shares to rise quickly, so that the owners of those shares could build wealth. Others were staunchly opposed, favoring tight resale restrictions that would ensure that the co-ops remained affordable for years to come. As one squatter put it:
“As soon as we started talking about resale, then, boom, right away there were those who came out of the closet, little capitalists coming out of the closet. Suddenly it wasn’t about the ‘we’ anymore, it was about the ‘me’” (p. 160).
This tension between immediate individual financial gain and long-term collective affordability is evident in efforts to provide affordable housing in cities around the world, and the way this plays out in the case of New York City’s squatters merits attention.
Towards the end of the book, Starecheski plumbs the contradictory role of history in gentrifying neighborhoods. Once their squats have become legalized, the former squatters consciously produce the history of squatting on the Lower East Side, not just for the themselves, but for their neighbors, and for the imagined future residents of the homes they’ve worked so hard to save. The squatters did not want their buildings to become mere commodities, because, as Starecheski explains, the nature of the commodity is that it hides the labor that went into creating it: and the squatters did not want their years of labor hidden behind the facades of their buildings. “History,” Starecheski writes, “became a hedge against alienation, total commodification” (p. 255). Yet history can be both a resource for ongoing resistance to commodification, and itself a commodity to be bought and sold as part of the gentrification process. The tension between history as commodity and as resource is palpable, and her discussion of this tension is one of the book’s most important contributions.
Starecheski digs into other important tensions, too: questions of living illegally, outside of capitalism, versus legally, within ownership structures recognized within the capitalist framework; contradictions over who “deserves” access to affordable housing, in the context of either the squats or the co-ops; and tension between the perceived “freedom” of squatting versus the perceived “stability” of ownership. But one section that left me wanting more was Starecheski’s discussion of the distinction between “ownership” and “stewardship.” Unlike ownership, stewardship implies caring for something without expecting to keep it permanently: one is simply the caretaker for now, and at some point the thing will be passed to future, unknown others. I would have liked to have seen Starecheski further flesh out the idea of stewardship, as I think it’s a critical philosophical component of efforts towards decommodification of housing and other resources.
“It’s our building,” one squatter explained, after the long struggle for ownership had ended, “It’s ours to lose” (p. 215). That these words became the book’s title highlights the author’s careful approach to her story. The transition from squatting to cooperative ownership isn’t necessarily a straightforward victory: it’s always contingent. The story of the move from squatting to homeownership, in one of the most high-pressured real estate markets in the world, shows that, as Starecheski writes, “resistance to the financialization of everything is still possible” (p. 263). The struggle is long, fraught, by turns joyful and bitter, and never guaranteed. Starecheski’s clear-eyed perspective is vital for understanding how struggles for spaces outside capitalism work, succeed, and fail. If you’re interested in these questions, read this book.