Hamilton has a long and troubled history of abandoned landmark buildings, but things could be a lot worse. Nearby American cities such as Detroit and Buffalo are suffering under a heavy burden of abandoned houses, to the point where mass programs of demolition are being considered as a “solution”. With the recent foreclosure crisis, this whole situation has reached a breaking point.

As many as 18000 homes may be vacant in Buffalo, around a fifth of the total housing stock. The city is currently buying up housing in massive numbers, 7-8000 will soon be owned by the city, one in 12 or 13. Of those, around 5000 are slated for demolition.

Detroit is even worse off. The population has fallen by half, and one in five houses stands abandoned. The average house now sells for around $7500, and many now go for a few dollars.

Derelict buildings like this spread like a disease. Common complaints include everything from houses being burnt down by owners, used as drug dens or even dumping grounds for dead bodies. Other less dramatic ones include piles of trash and destroyed exteriors. A study from the National Vacant Properties Campaign in the US found that properties lose an average of $7-8000 within 450 feet of n abandoned building

This represents a massive failure of the housing markets. America has 3.5 million long-term homeless people and 18.9 million vacant homes. Rather than making housing more affordable, lowering home prices have only destroyed the biggest source of equity most working families have. By tying the idea of home ownership to the notion of using one’s home as a savings account has transformed the housing market into one big game of Monopoly. Even if your home doubles in “value” during the 25 years it takes to pay off the mortgage, if you’re paying 6%/year, you’ll still pay over four times what you borrowed in the end.

And thus many people are stuck paying high rates for homes which are worth less than their cars. Unable to move, and under siege by increasingly hostile “blighted” neighbourhoods, they live in fear until they, too, can escape and leave another empty home.

Everyone’s afraid to offer the obvious solution. Give them away. While it’s very politically correct in the world of elite politics to hand out free cash to corporations (the bailout), there’s something almost taboo about giving it to the public. And when the public takes it for themselves – squatting – they’re described in terms most people are too nice to use on rats or roaches (see any of the above linked articles).

The costs of an abandoned home to the city of Buffalo is $20 060 over five years in costs like inspections and policing. It costs an average $16 040 to knock one down. For this kind of cash, the houses, which are already largely publicly owned, could just be given away to people who can show an ability to look after them, or do something interesting. It would cost far less than waiting around for brilliant development plans to come forward giving people an opportunity to get rich.

Some places are already doing this. Youngstown, Ohio is probably the poster-child for this kind of urban de-development. Having lost over half their population after their steel mills (once third in the nation) shut down, they’re launching an ambitious project to tear down entire tracts of vacant houses to make way for things like gardens and natural corridors. Other cities like Detroit have been making major strides as well, especially with urban farms.

The first lesson for Hamilton, here, is not to let things get this bad. But beyond that, it’s that when it comes to these kind of things, we need to keep things simple. Abandoned buildings and vacant lots are opportunities, and not just for developers. While a derelict house brings property values down, thriving community gardens, or reforested parks don’t. The second lesson, though, would be to act before “tearing everything down and letting nature take over” is the only sensible option. Buildings do not like being left vacant. And the costs involved go through the roof if a building has to be reclaimed from a few years of vacancy. A non-profit community group might have been able to do all the necessary work before five years of decay set in, but after that restoration work will require vast costs which only investors or governments can afford.

Squatters can and do fix up many buildings in this state of disrepair. Every day. There are low-cost alternatives to virtually every expensive, short-lived construction technique used by developers to cut costs. People can and do often get all of this done with little or no funds, setting up not only homes but restaurants, music venues, bike shops and internet cafes. Walking around Geneva or Amsterdam, you’d think they were civic institutions (and in a way, they are). But this isn’t possible without security. If people have no reason to believe they’ll be allowed to stay, it doesn’t make sense to do much other than throw in an old mattress and sell the pipes for beer money.

If there are going to be gardens in these spaces, then gardeners will need to know that they’re not just going to face bulldozers two weeks before harvest. If people are going to fix up abandoned homes, they need to know they’re going to be able to use power tools without the police showing up. I’m not saying squatting is the only answer, but whichever way you look at it, we need to minimize the red tape which stands between people and homes. If government grant programs can do it (and legitimize it), then so much the better, but it needs to make housing the priority, not bureaucracy.

This is about more than getting people shelter. It’s about getting rid of wealth which is nothing but a costly liability to the public and government, and putting it in the hands of people for whom it could be so much more. What owning your home really means is that nobody else does (landlords, banks etc), and it means a lot more opportunities for financial independence than public housing projects, as well as being possible at a far lower price. This crisis is a direct result of inflated housing prices, and it isn’t going to be solved until we acknowledge that the healthiest option for our communities is to have these homes owned by the people who live there, not banks, governments or corporations.