6th October 2014

Safety in numbers: Squatting as social and financial security

Santo Domingo

La Ciénaga, one of the poorest of Santo Domingo’s barrios. Photo by Erin B. Taylor.

Squatter settlements around the world are not generally considered to bestow financial or social security upon the people who live in them. Rather, they tend to be portrayed in two ways.

First, they are often described as places that trap people in poverty. The rationale is that lack of access to capital – economic, social, cultural – make the barriers to socioeconomic mobility so high as to be virtually insurmountable without outside intervention. People are, in this view, stuck in a “cycle” or “culture” of poverty.

Second, squatter settlements are overwhelmingly viewed as places of precariousness. Residents live a hand-to-mouth existence, employment opportunities are tenuous, and the future is uncertain. Moreover, given residents’ illegal occupation of the land on which they live, the threat of eviction hangs over these communities, discouraging people from improving their homes and thereby precluding their chances of (literally) building up their investments. Squatter settlements are subject to change, but again, not in a desirable way.

Curiously, these representations stand in opposition to one another. In the first, residents have stability, but of an undesirable kind: stability in their poverty, rather than in access to resources. In the second, residents’ lives are subject to change, but in a way that bestows risk rather than opportunities. Both of these representations have certain elements of truth to them, but they miss two crucial points: one, that in the long run, cycles of poverty cease to exist; and two, that squatter settlements do in fact provide important sources of security for their residents.

In 2005 I began fieldwork in La Ciénaga, one of the poorest of Santo Domingo’s barrios. First settled in the 1970s, residents faced state evictions in 1977 and 1991, as well as a military blockade from 1991 to 1996 to prevent residents from bringing in building supplies or electronic goods. To this day, not a single individual out of approximately 20,000 residents holds legal title to their land.

And yet, as I describe in my book, they have spent the last four decades transforming their homes from shacks made of tin and wood into concrete, often multi-level structures, to the point where the community no longer bears any resemblance to the ‘muddy nest of crabs and thieves’ that it used to be according to my interviewees.

If we compare the situation of Santo Domingo’s squatter settlements with home ownership in the United States we stumble across a surprising contrast. Since the subprime housing crisis rocked markets and lives in late 2007, more than three million mortgages have been foreclosed in the USA. The subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent foreclosures sent shock waves through Middle America. All of a sudden, impoverishment was not just something that could happen to the unwise and unprepared: rather, an ever-widening array of people were susceptible to crisis.

In contrast, most of the large banks that were in crisis (with the exception of Lehman Brothers, which was liquidated) were bailed out by governments. They had been deemed “too big to fail,” a term that was first popularized during the Reagan era of the early 1980s, referring to the idea that some financial institutions are so large that allowing them to collapse would send the economy into a tailspin.

Anthropologist Gillian Tett, in her book Fool’s Gold, puts a slightly different slant on their importance, stating that “Quite apart from whether they were ‘too big to fail,’ they were too interconnected to ignore.” She argues that it was not the size of the institutions’ portfolios per se that precipitated the crisis, but the ways in which they traded among themselves, which lead to an accumulation of calculation errors and sparked a domino effect when those errors came to light.

This inter-connectivity was not something that operated among homeowners, who had vertical relations with lenders rather than horizontal relations with each other–at least, until the “We are the 99%” movement began. That is, there was no representative or advocacy body through which they could lobby for their interests, no shared responsibility or risk, no shared identity. They were spatially dispersed and socially disparate. An atomized group, they could not leverage commonality to protect their wealth.

It is strange, then, that just a few hundred kilometres away, in the Caribbean, Dominican squatters seem to be better off than Americans, at least where housing security and cooperation are concerned. With no land title and no property rights, residents of Santo Domingo’s squatter settlements stand no risk of their homes being repossessed by the bank, because they have no mortgages.

Nor do they face much risk their homes being repossessed by the state, for they have safety in numbers: having settled slowly but persistently over the years, there are now tens of thousands of people in the barrios. Much of the land they occupy, especially around the river near the city centre, has a high market value. But the state would not risk a political scandal to dislodge them; nor does it have the capital necessary to relocate them all.

Squatter residents face a plethora of other problems, but they have a security of residence that is far superior to that of many people in developing countries. Like the largest banks, their community is “too big to fail,” and over the last two decades have also become politically “too big to ignore,” leading to government investment in the barrios and a significant amount of improvement in services and infrastructure.

Comparing squatter settlements to multinational investment banks might seem preposterous, yet it speaks to the complicated nature of wealth and poverty. People living in squatter settlements are often abjectly poor, suffer from higher exposure to water-borne diseases, have little access to quality education, and are socially stigmatized. But when such people make up a large portion of a city’s or nation’s demographic, then their collective position and their efforts to transform their situation can have a positive aggregate effect.

In fact, they may be better off than people who live in far wealthier countries with respect to some indicators, such as security and socioeconomic mobility are concerned. Perhaps when we choose images to describe poverty the popular image of the urban slum falling down a hillside should be supplanted with one reading”“Foreclosure.”


An all-too-common image. Photo by respres via Wikimedia.

An all-too-common image. Photo by respres via Wikimedia.