Is it stealing to occupy vacant homes?

Stephen P. Hale

Jason Summers
December 21, 2011

Stephen,<br><br>Your thinking here is correct with respect to care for the most vulnerable, but your application is flawed. Concern for the poor does not give license to law breaking and it is a false choice you present between banks and the poor just as it is a false choice between robbing me or letting people go hungry. Rather, one ought neither rob me nor let people go hungry, just as one should neither violate the law nor drive families to homelessness.<br><br>js

December 21, 2011

As Christians, we live by a higher law than the laws of the United States government. When the government's laws are in line with God's justice, they are to be followed; however, Dr. King and other wise people have made it clear that when the government's laws are unjust, the person of conscience should stand in nonviolent civil disobedience, bringing into stark relief the injustice of the law.<br><br>When the law protects those who have much—whether people or corporations—by upholding the fiction that they have some kind of absolute "right" to acquire and hold as much property as they want, no matter how great the need of their fellow human beings might be, such a law is unjust.<br><br>When the law protects those who gouge their fellow human beings on shelter, one of the basic necessities of life, and then kick them out of shelter when they can't pay up, such a law is unjust.<br><br>When the law protects and legalizes the massive banks cheating ordinary people out of their homes and causing a financial meltdown that hurts everyone except the individuals who caused it (who have, in fact, profited immensely from the financial crisis), while leaving their defenseless victims to fend for themselves, such a law is unjust.<br><br>You're right, though, in that the choice isn't between the interests of the big banks and the interests of the poor. It's really between the interests of the big banks and the interests of humanity as a whole.<br><br>God made it clear in the Old Testament that all property and debt were temporary and contingent; in the year of Jubilee, twice per century, all debts were to be forgiven and all lands (the means of wealth) redistributed among each tribe. <br><br>Given the massive trouble being caused by the inequitable distribution of the nation's resources and by the rapacious bankers' profits from the people's indebtedness, don't you think it's time the Church start calling for a Jubilee—or perhaps, as these Occupiers are doing, start putting Jubilee into practice?

Jason Summers
December 21, 2011

James,<br><br>My point is that there are many excellent ways to provide housing for persons such as Ms. Morey that do not require the false choice between breaking the law and homelessness. There is little or no justification for breaking the law in this case; it is not needed to ensure justice, it is simply expedient and cathartic.<br><br>Note that Ms. Morey is squatting by living in a house that is now vacant after being foreclosed upon. She was not forced out of her home, she was unable to pay rent in another location and sought a lower-cost solution; in this case by living without cost in a bank-owned home that was sitting vacant. She was not gouged by the bank that owned the home and, as Stephen notes, it's not clear that anyone was in this particular case.<br><br>This is a very different case than, for example, an elderly woman deceived through misrepresentation into taking out a home equity loan with a ballon payment who now finds herself unable to pay. In this case, she might well be justified in remaining in her home after foreclosure as an act of protest.<br><br>But note that most banks are not in the business of owning homes, they only find themselves in such circumstances when the loans they extended are no longer repaid and their capital is depleted. In this case, they act on those terms of the contract they have with the homeowner who no longer pays. Often they forgive part of the debt, as in a short sale, or modify the terms and total debt, as in a renegotiated mortgage.<br><br>Thus, banks would no doubt be quite willing to negotiate other more favorable terms to better deal with the liability the unoccupied home presents. For example, they might well accept below-market rent to ease cash flow in return for security of the property.<br><br>In this case Ms. Morey would have a home to live in at a price she could afford, the banks would have improved cash flow, and no laws would be broken. (In Florida, for example, banks seldom evict after foreclosure until after they have sold the house, for much the same reason.) <br><br>Given the better alternatives, I believe that this is not a matter that merits civil disobedience in the mode of Dr. King. Ms. Morey is having economic difficulties paying rent, she is not being systematically discriminated against or oppressed by an unjust political order. It's not at all clear that her difficulty in finding housing has anything at all to do with the mortgage crisis. And clearly it has nothing to do with people holding "as much property as they want, no matter how great the need of their fellow human beings might be" since the housing crisis has vastly lowered mortgage costs not raised them through some supply effect caused by hoarding of property.<br><br>Besides, your distaste for "big banks" (essentially investment banks trading in CDOs and ABS, I assume) and desire to take back from them what you term ill-gotten gain does not legitimize treating all foreclosed properties as subject to this kind of social reordering. Not all mortgages are held by such banks and foreclosure has long been the universal consequence of ongoing inability to pay one's mortgage.<br><br>Ms. Morey's basic problem is a lack of the income needed to support a reasonable standard of living. The reasons for this are complex and multiple institutions in society are responsible to work to address this problem. However, ad hoc decisions to take what one needs do not seem to be the best approach nor the one likely to address the long-term systematic causes of the problem.  <br><br>With respect to institution of jubilee, I'd suggest that one should be very careful about selectively imposing Old Testament commands intended for the Israelites on modern society. It's quite difficult to be theologically consistent about that. The principle imbedded in jubilee seems to be that we ought not create a caste system that locks people in perpetual debt or servitude. To my mind that means ensuring economic mobility and opportunity by addressing the core causes of inequality. <br><br>js<br><br>

Sharon Smith
December 21, 2011

Thank you for this post. I have been haunted - and angered! - by the episode of 60 Minutes that aired this past Sunday ( <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18560_162-57344513/there-goes-the-neighborhood/?tag=contentMain;cbsCarousel" rel="nofollow">http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18...</a> )<br>about how the city of Cleveland is tearing down vacated homes because the banks are not able to care for their (too many) foreclosed properties.<br><br>What have we BECOME?<br>- that families are forced to leave homes they can no longer afford because of a financial crisis caused by the banks<br><br>- yet the banks have too many properties to manage that these homes are neglected to the point that they become a blight and danger in a formally stable community<br><br>- that the city uses taxpayers' money to have the homes destroyed?! <br><br>Where is the SENSE in this????<br><br>Wouldn't it be so much better to keep the families IN their homes? Not only would it be more merciful, it would contribute to the health and future of our nations' families and communities. From a purely sociological point of view, has anyone thought about the long-term effects on families that are displaced and communities trying to meet the increased needs caused by homelessness such as providing homeless shelters for families, dealing with the emotional/physical/eduational pitfalls of children being moved around, the emotional/physical stress and longterm effects on family relationships, families being split up, etc.? Wouldn't it be cheaper to financially support a family in order to stay in their home than to provide additional services that will be needed when a family is displaced?<br>Instead of displacing families and uprooting them from their neighbors, schools, churches, stores, support systems....destroying everything that keeps a community and family healthy....these families would be doing us a favor to stay in their homes! <br><br>Wouldn't it be cheaper for a city - and the BANKS - to pay the utility bills to keep these families in their homes? <br><br>To put a moratorium on mortgage payments and property taxes? <br><br>Won't these now homeless families cost their cities much more than what they would have paid in property taxes?<br><br>Wouldn't it benefit the banks - and cities - in the long run to keep these homes in livable condition? <br><br>I am THRILLED to hear that there is a movement to OCCUPY OUR HOMES! It's a just way to maintain communities and to support families in financial distress. <br><br>This goes MUCH farther than saving a house....it saves a family AND a community. Keeping a family together, feeling safe in their own home, children being able to stay in a school and focus on learning instead of living with fear and stress of where they will sleep that night or what they will eat that day. These things are PRICELESS.<br><br>The banks caused this problem. They were "rescued" with tax payers' money. They continue to benefit through immoral means. They continue to cause more harm. <br><br>When is enough...enough? <br><br><br>PS - How many of us sent money to Haiti to build homes for families that were displaced? How many of us would be willing to pay what it takes to keep a family from our own neighborhood to stay in their home? <br>

December 21, 2011

Jason, your comments are well reasoned, dispassionate and grounded in Biblical ethics, in short, one of the reasons I keep coming back to Think Christian. I appreciate James Gilmore's comments as well, though I may not agree, and it is a joy to watch a discussion unfold. Thanks.

Drew Snider
December 21, 2011

Theologically, the Word of God is clear: you don't take something that doesn't rightfully belong to you -- doesn't matter if it's your neighbor's cat or a house temporarily owned by a bank. Squatting in a vacant house -- that probably doesn't have utilities switched on -- is not only wrong, but puts both the squatter and the neighbors at risk if they try to light a fire or illegally tap into the electrical grid. <br><br>I see a number of flaws in the argument for occupying "our" homes (and in the case cited here, it wasn't even a person who had previously owned -- or paid the mortgage on -- a house), not least of which being the class divide between "big bad banks" and "poor downtrodden but virtuous" people. You're stereotyping banks and their shareholders as being greedy and mean-spirited, but if your grandmother's pension fund has invested in that bank or the bank supports a number of social service agencies, wouldn't you want the bank to be vigilant about its assets? You're also creating a convenient scapegoat -- like the mythical "1%" the Occupy movement rails against -- and that has some very dangerous historical precedents (including early-church Christians, who were brutally persecuted under Nero). This approach is based in fear, hatred and self-righteousness -- none of which is blessed by God.<br><br>Remember, too, that when Peter made his remark about obeying God rather than men, he still took his lumps in prison and from beatings. Jesus didn't break laws or take things that weren't His, so we can't point to Him for justification for law-breaking "for a good cause", either. <br><br>Underlying all of this is "Occupyist" thinking, which is flawed in that it demands that someone else take responsibility for fixing something. This is based in a false sense of helplessness, which in turn creates a victim mentality. However, the Bible tells us over and over again that God rewards *overcomers* -- not victims.<br><br>"Scripture never sides with the wealthy against the poor," you assert. That's as may be, but in fact, God, being no respecter of persons, only "sides" with those who side with Him -- and that has nothing to do with income or economic stratum. If you're not walking in love towards others, can you really say you're on God's side? A poor person who holds in hatred and bitterness in his heart towards the wealthy is in worse shape than the rich person who reaches out in love to the poor. <br>

December 22, 2011

As far as the pension funds and grandma's savings go, I think the point is that neither the balance sheets of the banks nor the savings invested in them are kept in better financial health by foreclosing, and tearing down the homes. There is no more payment being made on those mortgages, the banks no longer have a valuable asset, its lose, lose, lose, all around.<br><br>The sensible thing, as well as the compassionate thing, would be to recognize that we are all in an interlocked jam, and the banks might as well let people stay in their homes, negotiate to get what they can get for now in the way of payment, keep the net principal owed on the books, extend terms, whatever it takes.<br><br>The ultimate weapon of foreclosure can then be reserved for those who really aren't going to pay anything ever, aren't taking very good care of the property anyway, etc.<br><br>One obstacle, of course, is that the loans have been packaged, repackaged, sold, and resold, so there is nobody with clear authority and knowledge to make reasonable discretionary judgements. A good reform would be to require the original local lender to retain responsibility to administer the mortgage and collect payments.<br><br>But, given how badly things have broken down, Thomas Aquinas said something once about how need makes certain classes of theft morally acceptable. I would say this is one such case, at least for now.

December 23, 2011

From a legal perspective, it would be trespassing, not stealing to occupy a home that didn't belong to you.

January 25, 2012

Vacant houses deteriorate faster than occupied houses. The occupiers could be care takers.

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