Property Rebels: Reclaiming Abandoned Bank-Owned Homes for Community Uses
53 Pages Posted: 5 Nov 2015
Date Written: August 24, 2015
At least theoretically, in many cities, every homeless individual could be sheltered in a bank-owned foreclosed home. In the years since the 2008 financial crisis, however, tens of thousands of bank-owned foreclosed properties have remained vacant in urban areas, attracting crime, degrading property values and creating economic black holes in communities. The public costs associated with abandoned homes are so high that it is often cheaper to destroy homes than to determine how the spaces might be better utilized. This article asks whether modifications to existing property law norms such as adverse possession, which in some cases reward law-breaking, might provide a legal framework through which abandoned homes might be put to community use, not necessarily to end homelessness (which has roots, causes and consequences beyond the scope of this article), but instead to combat the harms to communities caused by blocks upon blocks of abandoned bank-owned homes and to re-engineer the relationships between banks and the communities in which such banks have property interests.
One coalition of community activists has, without an articulated legal narrative for its actions, attempted to do just that — one loosely knit group of activists, calling themselves the “Occupy Our Homes” movement, has worked to shift the dynamic between foreclosing banks and low income communities by placing homeless individuals and families in bank-owned houses. The actions of Occupy Our Homes activists provide a lens through which we might seek to reorganize the bundle of ownership rights possessed by foreclosing banks when those banks fail to maintain and market properties in urban cores. The Occupy Our Homes activists force us to consider whether, when banks fail to properly maintain and market abandoned foreclosed homes, some of the rights that banks possess should be passed to community groups (perhaps community land trusts) through a somewhat relaxed version of adverse possession.
In the time since the 2008 economic crisis, there has been a robust debate among scholars regarding how property law norms might shift in order to address the depletion of property values, the increase in crime and the host of other ills that have flowed from the glut of bank-owned foreclosed homes in urban cores. This article argues that, where communities are harmed by abandoned bank-owned homes and community groups such as the Occupy Our Homes group described herein organize a response, the adverse possession doctrine should be relaxed as other scholars have suggested, but the beneficiaries of such a relaxation of standards should be community groups, not just individual adverse possessors.
Keywords: foreclosure, homelessness, occupy our homes, adverse possession
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