Artists built an apartment in a Rhode Island mall and lived there for free, though without plumbing. Nobody noticed — for four years. (Nobody, that is, except the burglar who broke in and stole a Sony PlayStation 2.)
Individual artists lived in the fully-furnished secret apartment, which took up 750 square feet in an unused utility space in the parking garage, for up to three weeks at a time. A Providence, Rhode Island judge sentenced the artists’ leader to probation for trespassing in 2007.
As an aficionado of hidden rooms and secret passageways, I love this story. As a former professional advocate for homeless people, it reminds me of the many people driven to squat in empty buildings or pay to live in squalor because there isn’t enough decent affordable housing.
1. Unfinished Skyscraper: Venezuela
Caracas, Venezuela, has the dubious honor of hosting the world’s tallest squat. The unfinished 45-story skyscraper, abandoned during a banking crisis after the owner died, is home to 2,500 people, the Guardian reports. The building lacks basic services, like water, a sewage system, elevators, and, in parts of the tower, electricity. “In some units, the only thing separating its owners from a [98 foot] fall is caution.” Residents pay a monthly fee for ongoing improvements to the structure. Still, as one man described it, residents consider their home “a blessing.”
Caracas needs almost 400,000 more housing units than it has, leaving many with two options: homelessness or squatting. Those with a little more money — i.e. 51% of the city’s population — live in shantytowns. Things are so bad that Hugo Chavez encouraged poor residents to take over abandoned buildings.
2. Elena: Cuba
Central Havana, in Cuba, is a crumbling, uninhabitable neighborhood. But that doesn’t mean no one lives there. A 2012 documentary tells the story of Elena, a building with no stairway and, in many apartments, no kitchens or bathrooms. What it does have is leaks and sewage floods containing excrement and worms, according to the Havana Times. These conditions are no anomaly in Central Havana.
3. Public Housing: United States
New York City provides affordable public housing to some poor residents, but they pay a price: deteriorating health, caused by the crumbling walls, mold, rust and exposed pipes in some of these buildings. New York’s Daily News talked to previously-healthy tenants who now need medication or machines to help them breathe.
Resident Natasha Bartley says that elevator malfunctions force her and her three children to climb 17 floors to their apartment, passing “urine, mold, dirt, drug dealers and feces” along the way.
The city blames its failure to fix the problems on a backlog of repair work. Yes, when you don’t make repairs, the repair work builds up. Of course, the city also pleads poverty. I doubt that impresses public housing tenants.
4. Fred Morgan: United States
Landlord Fred Morgan rents individual rooms in his New Orleans properties for up to $100 per week. Many of his tenants were homeless before they moved in, so they are grateful for the roof over their heads despite the asbestos, suffocating smell of mold, leaks that pour water down through ceilings, gas leaks, cockroaches covering every surface, and holes in floors, walls, and ceilings, the Times-Picayune reports. What they don’t have is, depending on the room, electricity, heat, air-conditioning, working bathrooms or a lock on the front door. Residents are justified in calling Morgan a slumlord.
“Several tenants say he is using buildings that many would consider unfit for living in order to make money off people with no other options,” including one who is considering returning to the streets as a better option than living at Morgan’s place. Those are the only two alternatives he can afford.
New Orleans tends not to enforce building codes when buildings are occupied, so there is no prospect for improvements in the near future.
5. Urban Slums: India
A report based on a 2011 national census concludes that one in six Indians in cities — about 64 million individuals — live in housing unfit for human habitation. According to the Guardian, the report describes crowding, poor ventilation and open sewers. Many go without indoor toilets, using the sea instead. Families share a single room.
The report noted an encyclopedia’s definition of bad housing in slums as “dwellings that have inadequate light, air, toilet and bathing facilities; that are in bad repair…and improperly heated; that do not afford opportunity for family privacy; that are subject to fire hazard and that overcrowd the land, leaving no space for recreational use.”
Inadequate housing is a global crisis that affects the health and well-being of billions. The U.N. considers housing “adequate for…health and well-being” to be a human right. In real life, decent housing is a privilege that comes with wealth. Israelis have taken to the streets to protest that country’s lack of affordable housing. We should all do the same.
Photo credits: iStockphoto/Thinkstock