BEYOND SQUAT OR ROT:
ANARCHIST APPROACHES TO HOUSING
It's time to renew your yearly lease and once again your landlord
wants to raise your monthly rent. Should you stay or should you
go? Are there options to leases, rents and mortgages? Why does the
landlord get away with raising everybody's rents, when they probably
haven't made any improvements to your building in the last year?
This issue of Practical Anarchy looks at some of the answers to
these questions, what alternatives exist, and how to challenge the
traditional way housing is provided.
Why are we addressing this issue?
Those active in the alternative housing movement should not automatically
assume that everyone wants to join them. After all, suburban living
is rather entrenched. Suburbanites may not fully like their living
situation, but they aren't exactly clamoring for something different.
It will take some time before more suburbanites realize that the
suburbs are the cause of that disappearance of community that everybody
talks about. They'll also realize the tremendous costs commuting
and car-dependence has on the environment, their families, their
psyche, and their health.
Alternative housing activists have one thing in their favor when
it comes to convincing the mainstream to join them. They have existing
examples to point to, be it a co-op, a squat, a land trust, an intentional
community, or a cohousing community. And there are hundreds of examples
of successful projects. The challenge is to spread the word to folks
who are unaware of this movement. What would be an effective method
of outreach? More media coverage? Field trips?
One of the big challenges of the alternative housing movement is
how to expand beyond a handful of houses/projects to a widespread
system of alternative housing. How do you get to a critical mass
of alternative housing in a city, where it becomes easier to start
and finance new projects? A small city like Madison Wisconsin has
over ten co-ops and most of these co-ops have been around for ten
years or longer. Through cooperation these existing co-ops can pool
their money and start a new co-op, or at least help some folks get
a new one started. That is, if the members of the current co-ops
have the inclination to do such a thing.
One of the big things that will go unexamined in this segment of
the series is gender relations in alternative housing. The members
of co-ops and squats often say that the are for gender equality
in everyday life, yet only some will actually live according to
the principles they preach. Even today, all to often women are still
being stuck with the housework and child care in these alternative
projects. A whole article could be devoted to the inability of men
to do the dishes. In order for the alternative housing movement
to grow, these concerns need to be addressed, and ACTED UPON.
When one thinks about housing cooperatives, one generally thinks
about student co-ops in university towns. Traditionally university
towns such as Madison (WI), Berkeley (CA), and Oberlin (OH) have
been fertile grounds for student-occupied housing co-ops.
These co-ops generally consist of a large house with 5 or more
bedrooms, common living and dining areas, and several bathrooms.
Some co-ops are "unofficial," that is, they consist of
several people renting a multi-bedroom apartment and sharing costs.
But I am concerned here with "official" co-ops like the
one I lived in for two years in Madison, WI. Official co-ops usually
average around 10 to 20 members, with the extremes having over 100.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Co-op Living
- Rent for each person can be cheaper. None of your rent money is
going into a landlord's pocket. If the co-op is a nonprofit organization,
you may get a small refund each year from the co-op treasury.
- A sense of community is created. You develop a vested interest
in making things work between the members of the co-op. You may
also make some good friends.
- The food co-op can keep your expenses down, feed you healthy and
yummy food, and free you of some of the time you spend each week
- You get to share in disasters. Enjoy the group effort as everybody
bails out the leaking basement, chases bats around, haul heavy furniture
up flights of stairs, and order pizza after a miserable communal
- You get a balance of private and public space. You can fight over
the TV, or retreat to your room.
- You can learn useful skills like composting, home repair, mail
forwarding, handling house finances, budgeting, negotiating with
contractors, cooking for large groups, and cleaning up after basement
- Residents can be transient. If the residents are mostly students,
the turnover can become quite frequent and sense of ongoing community
is not formed. Another aspect of high turnover is that these transient
residents treat the co-op as just another apartment.
- People who unfairly take advantage of the co-op. Some folks are
irresponsible about paying the rent [the nature of a co-op lets
the occasional member be tardy with a rent payment, but not everyone!];
others rip off the co-op buy using house funds to buy food for themselves.
- You may not like the lifestyle flavor of the house. A young punk
may not like living with studious grad students; conversely, grad
students may not like living with loud young punkers. Diversity
can benefit co-ops if the residents are tolerant of differences.
- Too frequent, long, and contentious house meetings. Some co-ops
think they have to have a meeting every week, regardless if there
is anything to really talk about. Other co-ops don't have enough
meetings and co-op problems fester.
External Factors Affecting Co-op Success
- Housing market. It may be hard to find a large house that is
available, not to mention affordable. Or the co-op may be located
in a neighborhood whose value increases.
- This may raise the value of the co-op, leading to higher taxes.
Another challenge could be that the city has a large number of cheap
- Time. People can be too busy to participate in the daily tasks
necessary to keep the co-op running. Personal projects, hobbies,
school, work, and families can divert time.
- Some amount of this is okay, but an excessive amount devoted to
excessive activities could hurt a member's involvement in the co-op.
- Demographics, lifestyle trends. Living in a co-op could become
hip, or apartment living could be hip.
- If a co-op is in a university town, caps on enrollment can cut
the pool of potential members.
- Natural disasters. A risk wherever you live.
Co-ops / How To
How does one start a co-op? If you are lucky you may live in a
town that has already existing co-ops. Give them a call. Find out
how they got started (if anybody remembers). If your town doesn't
have co-ops you will have to call a co-op in another town. Be prepared
to find that the people you talk to may have no idea how their co-op
was started. Some co-ops have been around for over 20 years and
the original founders aren't still living there.
In order to have a co-op, you need people who are willing to live
in one. You need to find these people and get them together to talk
about starting a new co-op. One effective method is to put up posters
around your town or community announcing a meeting and soliciting
interest. These posters should go up in places were people will
see them: food co-ops, stores, kiosks, laundromats, classrooms,
or telephone poles. Another possibility is to make an announcement
on a local radio station or to take out a short ad in the local
Once you have people together, you need to have lots of meetings,
mainly to plan for the co-op, but also to shake out those who aren't
serious enough to commit. Also, you develop relationships with your
future co-opers. You'll need to set up bank accounts, determine
officers, file as a non-profit corporation, and create by-laws.
The by-laws are necessary so that you have organized procedures
for member shipping new members and removing troublesome ones. they
also cover many other facets of running a co-op; contact existing
to co-ops to find out what should be included.
There are several financial considerations that have to be included
in a co-op. Normally in most co-ops you'll be needing to pay off
the mortgage and other loans on a monthly basis. The rent collected
from the members on a monthly basis should cover this as well as
several other important finances:
- Utilities: gas, electricity, fuel oil, etc. (It isn't worth it
to divide this stuff proportionately by use, if it's possible at
all) Minor maintenance: A small portion of each person's rent should
be set aside to cover things like light bulbs, visits by the plumber,
- Major maintenance: Another portion of the monthly rent collection
should be set aside in a bank account to cover future projects done
to the house. This way the house has some money saved up for the
day when the chimney needs to be fixed, the plumbing replaced, the
house painted, and so on.
- PROFIT: Actually, there is no profit involved, so ignore this
After I left Rivendell, they were able to refinance their mortgage,
which allowed them to finance several projects including a major
remodeling of the kitchen and basement, fixing a frequent leak,
tuckpointing, and painting the house purple.
Another major aspect of a co-op is the food co-op. This is a feature
which involves the pooling of money to buy food for the co-op and
a system of preparing co-op dinners. Some co-ops make cooking for
the co-op a work job, but some, like Rivendell, expected everybody
to take their turn cooking dinner for the entire co-op. In a co-op
of ten people, this meant that I had to cook for everybody ONCE
every two weeks. The other nights I just showed up for dinner.
The person running the food co-op collects money from each member
once a month. An amount needs to be decided upon which is settled
on after some experience (the food co-op at Rivendell was about
$70 a month). Several of the co-op members have the work job of
shopping, which is done once a week. The cooks for the upcoming
week list what ingredients they need. The shoppers buy groceries
to cover this along with buying "basics." A food co-op
can be inexpensive because you are buying in bulk. If money is spent
on lots of processed foods, dairy products, and meat, the cost per
co-oper will go up. House philosophy may also determine the diet;
an all vegetarian or vegan house won't buy any meat.
There are many tasks that must be done in order for the co-op to
function harmoniously. These tasks can be managed by a system of
work jobs. The co-op must decide at a meeting how to allocate work
jobs. This is often done at a meeting at the beginning of a semester
(if the members are mostly students). The members decide what tasks
need to be done, how to weight each task involves on a weekly basis,
and the amount of work each co-oper is expected to do. Then they
negotiate who does what task. Work jobs include such things as bathroom
cleaning, common area cleaning, food co-op treasurer, house treasurer,
grounds keeping/gardening, maintenance, and others. Some co-ops
may come up with special tasks such as bulk food preparation, composter,
mail forwarding, and liaison to the co-op association.
LANDLORD, n. A pillar of society as necessary to its existence
as a tick is to a hound.
-- Chaz Bufe, American Heretic's Dictionary.
LAND, A part of the earth's surface, considered as property. The
theory that land is property, subject to private ownership and control
is the foundation of modern society, and is eminently worthy of
the superstructure. Carried to its logical conclusion, it means
that some have the right to prevent others from living; for the
right to own implies the right exclusively to occupy; and in fact
laws of trespass are enacted wherever property in land is recognized.
It follows that if the whole area of terra firma is owned by A,
B, and C, there will be no place for D, E, F and G to be born, or,
born as trespassers, to exist.
-- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary.
Cohousing is an alternative form of housing that has become
popular in recent years. The movement got its start in Europe, where
Denmark in particular is a hotbed of this housing type. Cohousing
has been getting lots of attention in the U.S. in the last couple
of years, with several projects having been built and others on
the drawing board.
What is cohousing? It is a planned community which is a cross between
an intentional community and a housing co-op. The building or buildings
in the project are often built from scratch, but sometimes pre-existing
structures are adapted for the project. Cohousing is usually found
in cities or suburbs.
A cohousing community usually consists of individual households
or buildings clustered around a common building that houses group
facilities such a communal kitchen and dining area, laundry facilities,
a library, workshops, and child care facilities. Some cohousing
projects consist of a single building divided up into individual
residences and common areas. The residences in cohousing developments
usually contain private kitchens, so a person, couple, or family
can eat separately from the others once in a while.
Cohousing has many advantages over traditional housing. The residents
have a say in the development of the community. They have a say
in the day-to-day life of the community. It gets more people involved
in a cooperative lifestyle. Cohousing balances the needs people
have for personal space and community space. It offers a way for
several generations to live cooperatively, yet meet their diverse
Some anarchists have criticized cohousing as bourgeois, a fad for
rich yuppies. People involved in cohousing are often middle class
individuals or families with the financial resources to devote towards
making a cohousing project happen. Most of them are white professionals.
It could be argued that these folks aren't doing anything to help
poor people to start similar projects. Is it fair to make such a
generalization? Don't most "revolutions" start with the
middle class? Why can't we support "mainstream" people
who are making a commitment to cooperative living? If the cohousing
movement reaches a critical mass, more and more projects will be
started, including ones that include poor folks.
Cities like Madison, Wisconsin have a large number of co-ops because
there is a pre-existing co-op scene with the finances to loan money
to new projects. A project or movement doesn't have to include radicals
to be radical.
This article won't go into depths on life in cohousing or the how-to
in running such a community. The reader is directed to the excellent
book on cohousing which is listed at the end of this article.
What is a TAZ?
A TAZ is a temporary autonomous zone, a concept first elaborated
on by Hakim Bey in his 1990 essay "The Temporary Autonomous
Zone." Bey wrote that a TAZ is hard to define, but that instances
of it could be described. Bey was inspired by his study of the instances
in history where independent enclaves sprung up, "whole mini-societies
living consciously outside the law and determined to keep it up,
even if only for a short but merry life." He was also inspired
by cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling's book Islands in the Net, which
describes a near-future world filled with autonomous "experiments
in living: giant worker-owned corporations, independent enclaves
devoted to 'data piracy,' Green-Social-Democrat enclaves, Zerowork
enclaves, anarchist liberated zones, etc." Bey thought that
these temporary autonomous zones were not only possible in the future,
but already existed.
Much of the essay is devoted to the discussion of the anarchist
potential of developing a WEB to counterattack the Net in cyberspace,
but that falls outside of this discussion. Bey also outlined the
various instances of TAZs throughout history: pirate utopias, people
defecting from civilization to the "wilderness" (the infamous
Roanoke colony that left the message "Gone to Croatan"),
revolutionary urban communes (Paris), and Makhno's Ukraine. A TAZ
these days would be a festive, spontaneous happening , or it could
be something else...
In a later essay, Bey introduced something he called a PAZ, or
permanent autonomous zone. A PAZ is a TAZ that has put down roots
and intends to stay around for a while. Bey wrote that in TAZ that
a TAZ that put down roots would be something similar to a bolo,
which is discussed in the next section.
What's a bolo?
The concept of bolos are introduced by author P.M. in the book
bolo'bolo. This book details the structure and workings of a hypothetical
near-future world. In many ways, this work of science fiction introduces
anarchistic concepts in a new light. The world of bolo'bolo is dominated
by such anarchist concepts a decentralized politics, cooperative
living, cooperative trade, the lack of national borders, and confederated
Individuals living in the world of bolo'bolo are known as ibus.
Ibus can join with 300 to 500 other ibus to form a bolo. P.M. defines
a bolo as a "basic agreement with other ibus, a direct, personal
context for living, producing, dying. The bolo replaces the old
"agreement" called money. In and around the bolo the ibus
can get their daily 2000 calories, a living space, medical care,
the basics of survival, and indeed much more." P.M. explains that an ibu can choose to join a bolo, remain alone,
or transfer to another bolo. Bolos are largely self-sufficient,
but do not exist in a vacuum. Other parts of the book detail how
trade works in this world.
Bolos would be as diverse as the region in which they are located.
The inhabitants would also contribute to the look and feel of the
bolo. P.M. suggests some possibilities for how bolos would look: "Larger and higher housing projects can be used as vertical
bolos. In the countryside, a bolo corresponds to a small town, to
a group of farmhouses, to a valley. A bolo needn't be architecturally
unified. In the South Pacific, a bolo is a coral island, or even
a group of smaller atolls. In the desert, the bolo might not even
have a precise location; rather, it's the route of the nomads who
belong to it (maybe all members of the bolo meet only twice a year).
On rivers or lakes, bolos can be formed with boats. There can be
bolos in former factory buildings, palaces, caves, battleships,
monasteries, under the ends of the Brooklyn Bridge, in museums,
zoos, at Knotts Berry Farm or Fort Benning, in the Iowa Statehouse,
shopping malls, the University of Michigan football stadium, Folsom
Ten to twenty bolos can form a tega, which can be thought of as
a village, small town, or large neighborhood. What kind of function
does a tega serve? P.M. explains: " A tega (let's call it 'township') will fulfill certain practical
tasks for its members: streets, canals, water, energy-plants, small
factories and workshops, public transportation, hospital, forests
and waters, depots of materials of all kinds, construction, firefighters,
market regulations, (sadi), general help, reserves for emergencies.
More or less, the bolos organize a kind of self-administration or
self-government on a local level. The big difference to such forms
in actual societies(neighborhood-councils, block-committees, 'soviets',
municipalities, etc.) is that they're determined from 'below' (they're
not administrative channels of a centralized regime) and that the
bolos themselves with their strong independence limit the power
and possibilities of such 'governments'."
Bolo'bolo is a thought-provoking exploration of an anarchist alternative
to current society.
Is there strength in numbers? Should anarchists try and live in
one place? Would it be effective to set up an example so that other
people could see what we are proposing, and then start their own
project? Would people defect from "normal" society to
join "anarchistic" housing projects? Would such an example
promote separatism or the possibility of government repression?
There are some anarchists who argue that in order to show others
the alternatives, we need to construct some living examples. One
possibility would be a project in a big city that houses local anarchists
and others who have flocked there. Why can't we, for instance, start
an anarchist neighborhood made up of row houses in Philadelphia
or New York? The proponents of this approach suggest that anarchists
from other cities and towns move to this one neighborhood so that
a big concentration of anarchists is formed. This "critical
mass" of anarchists would serve as a catalyst for similar projects,
and at the same time would start other projects such as cooperative
economics and cooperative workplaces. This neighborhood would be
a crucible for anarchist ideas to be enacted, thus becoming an example
to the rest of society.
There are several drawbacks to this approach. An obvious one is
government repression. A large grouping of anarchists would give
the state an easy target for a misinformation campaign and eventual
violent assault, like MOVE or Waco. This could happen even if the
neighborhood kept a low profile. Another complicating factor, arising
if the neighborhood intended to do outreach to the rest of society,
is the misrepresentation of the project by the mainstream media.
This could dilute the message so that the project is written off
by others as a hotbed of weirdoes. Hopefully, the neighborhood would
spread the word through alternative media. This type of project
could also be a magnet for counterculture bums, you know, the folks
who come to gatherings or hang out at DIY projects and never give
anything back. The guys who talk but won't do the dishes.
Anarchists, like many other radical activists, also overlook the
fact that we have lots of allies who aren't anarchists. Many people
are interested in anarchistic housing projects, but they aren't
necessarily anarchists. Would you really want to live in a big neighborhood
with only anarchists? There are many successful alternative housing
projects that are filled with people who aren't political all the
All the alternative housing in existence today is little compared
to the square miles of suburbia around the world (not to mention
all the apartment blocks). How do we change the current way of living
in our suburban society? Why should we convince these people to
try something different? What are the possible alternatives to tract-living?
Do we tear all of suburbia down, or do we convert it to a more cooperative,
egalitarian form? How would that alternative look?
Unfortunately, those of us interested in getting more people involved
in cooperative living are up against some tough, deeply-held, cherished
beliefs. We all know about the "American Dream" of every
person owning their own home and lot. I read recently about a survey
which asked suburbanites if they'd be willing to live in something
other suburbia. Most were willing, but didn't want to give up their
Madison Community Cooperatives / 306 North Brooks, Madison, WI
53703, (608) 251-2667 (wk) An umbrella organization that manages
9 cooperatives in Madison, Wisconsin.
Call housing co-ops in cities that have them and ask questions of
the member who answers. Co-op members are usually willing to talk
about their experiences living in their particular house. Talking
to co-opers is the best way to find out if the co-op approach is
right for you. Communities with co-ops include Berkeley, CA; Lawrence,
KS; Madison, WI; Ann Arbor, MI; and Oberlin, OH.
- Communities: journal of cooperative living / 1118 Round Butte
Dr., Fort Collins, CO 80524; (303) 224-9080. Quarterly. A good resource
for information on intentional communities, cooperatives, cohousing,
and other housing/community alternatives.
- The Raven: Anarchist Quarterly #17 (vol.5, no.1). Use of the Land
issue. January-March 1992. Freedom Press, 84b Whitechapel High St.,
London E1 7QX (Available from
Left Bank Books in the U.S.)
- A Pattern Language : towns, building, construction / Christopher
Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, et. al. New York: Oxford University Press,
- Cohousing: a contemporary approach to housing ourselves / Kathryn
McCamant and Charles Durrett. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, CA, 1988.
- Tenants Take Over / Colin Ward. The Architectural Press Ltd.,
- Collaborative communities: cohousing, central living, and other
new forms of housing with shared facilities / by Dorit Fromm. New
York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1991.
- bolo'bolo / by p.m. New York: Semiotext(e), 1985.
- Cracking the Movement: squatting beyond the media / Adilkno. New
York: Autonomedia, 1990. English trans. 1994.
- Occupation Insurrection: towards an anarcho-spatialist land tenure
/ Anders Corr (manuscript in progress)
- T.A.Z. The temporary autonomous zone, ontological anarchy, poetic
terrorism / by Hakim Bey. New York, Autonomedia, 1991. [Autonomedia,
PO Box 568,
Williamsburgh Station, Brooklyn, NY 11211-0568]
- Kick It Over. No.34 / November 1994. PO Box 5811, Station A, Toronto,
Ontario, Canada M5W 1P2 (sample copy $3). Special issue on "Food
and Land." Housing-related articles include "Land Trusts:
Land held in common" by Jeff Johnston and "Anarcho-Spatialism:
towards an egalitarian land tenure" by Anders Corr.
- A guide to cooperative alternatives / edited by Communities, journal
of cooperative living ; editors: Paul Freundlich, Chris Collins,
and Mikki Wenig. Louisa, Va.: Community Publications Cooperative,
- American communes, 1860-1960 : a bibliography / Timothy Miller.
New York : Garland Pub., 1990.