Steven DeCaprio is known as one of the most knowledgeable squatters in the United States. For this old punk rocker, it’s not just a free home: It’s political. He believes it’s criminal that people are homeless while abandoned homes sit vacant. Could squatting help stem gentrification in Oakland, California? It might depend on who’s squatting—and who lives next door.Download episode
Rebecca Sheir has been a host and reporter on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Splendid Table, and the Alaska Public Radio Network. Follow her on Twitter.
Andrew Stelzer is a radio and print journalist based in Oakland, California. He’s reported for several public and international radio shows over the past 15 years.
Steven DeCaprio, a housing rights activist in Oakland, California, founded Land Action in 2012 to help social justice and environmental organizers acquire property.
Rebecca Sheir: Head to the west side of Oakland, California, walk down 37th Street, and you’ll pass a house that’s been in a near-constant state of repair—or disrepair—for decades. Steven DeCaprio lives in this wood-frame stucco home, but he never bought it. And he doesn’t pay rent, either. Steven’s a squatter. He jimmied open the doors more than 10 years ago—and never left.
Steven DeCaprio: I wasn’t looking for some urban camping adventure. I was just trying to not live in my van.
Sheir: According to the law, Steven now owns this house. Or ... he pretty much owns it. It’s actually kind of complicated. But what’s clear is that in the process of trying to make this abandoned house his own, Steven has learned more than most about how to live on a property without paying for it.
DeCaprio: At this point I’m an expert on adverse possession law and when I became homeless I’d never even heard the word adverse possession.
Sheir: Truth be told, I’d never heard of it, either. Turns out adverse possession is a concept that goes all the way back to Roman times, and came to the U.S. legal system via English common law. Basically, it allows someone to assume the title of an unclaimed, abandoned property after a certain period of time—the length of time, and the particular circumstances, vary from state to state. But adverse possession isn’t an easy thing to do; it takes a lot of perseverance. And Steven DeCaprio says the reason he’s succeeded thus far is that his goals are bigger than getting a house for free. Much bigger. Because Steven DeCaprio wants to change the world.
I’m Rebecca Sheir and from Slate magazine, this is Placemakers: stories about the spaces we inhabit and the people who shape them. Today: the subversive underground of squatters in California. Andrew Stelzer has the story.
Andrew Stelzer: Here’s the house I’m looking for, 871.
DeCaprio (on phone): Yeah, I’ve got to go. There’s a media guy. I’m doing a media interview. Hey.
Stelzer: How’s it going?
DeCaprio: Pretty good. Silence!
Stelzer: Is that the dog’s name or a command?
DeCaprio: Ramus is his name, silence is the command.
Stelzer: Steven DeCaprio’s skinny, with thinning hair and a graying beard. He’s got his morning cup of coffee in one hand as he holds his dog back with the other.
Stelzer: Is this a neighborhood that needs a guard dog?
DeCaprio: Yeah, this is totally a neighborhood where you need a dog. There’s a lot of crime in the neighborhood. Well, before we got him people would come into the yard and try and grab anything they could that had any value. I got shot like a block away. Luckily it was a glancing bullet wound, but they shot a muralist. Some guy shot a muralist around the corner. Yeah, I mean it’s a rough neighborhood.
Stelzer: This part of Oakland has a lot of beautiful but aging houses that have been home to a largely African American community since World War II. Steven DeCaprio’s house has been abandoned since at least the early 1980s, maybe even earlier. The last owner of record died in 1983. And when he first entered the house in the early 2000s, it was a wreck.
DeCaprio: There were no doors, this whole area that we’re standing on was a big gaping hole that was fire damaged. The roof was crumbling. There was a tree growing into the roof. Animals had climbed that tree and gone on the branch that was going into the roof and then jumped down, and so there was piles of dead animal carcasses.
Stelzer: DeCaprio originally found this house in the early 2000s. At that time, there were hundreds, if not thousands of vacant, seemingly abandoned older homes in Oakland. Desperate for a place to stay where he might not get evicted, he began hitting the legal books to learn about property law. Then he hit the streets with some friends.
DeCaprio: We went around and we street by street identified abandoned properties. We then went down to the assessor’s office and other public agencies to research those properties. We tried to track down the owners and contact them. After doing all of that we would enter the properties.
Stelzer: At the time I met him, DeCaprio was close—really, really close—to taking total and complete, undisputed legal ownership of this house. To understand how he’s done this, you’ve got to dig into the legal concept we talked about at the beginning of this story: adverse possession.
Here’s how it works in a nutshell: You have to live in the space, openly, for a number of years. And the real legal owner must not be present or take any action to remove you during that time. When the statute of limitations runs out—in California that’s five years—and no one has tried to have you removed, you can legally claim that property is yours through adverse possession.
Many squatters don’t even know how to pursue a claim of adverse possession. But Steven DeCaprio is not your average squatter. He pays property taxes and does other paperwork to establish legal residency on the properties he’s hoping to acquire. He’s spent years doing legal research on property law, and advises other squatters and activists. DeCaprio’s featured in a 2005 documentary film called Shelter: a Squatumentary. The filmmakers captured a moment where he negotiated with a police officer on the street out in front of a different house in Berkeley he was squatting in at the time. The cops wanted him out.
DeCaprio: My question is if you don’t have evidence in the first place to charge me with trespassing the first time, how can you charge me for something that you guys don’t have evidence on? And are you gonna keep charging me with something that’s not.
Officer: As far as the city is concerned this is not your residence, anytime you come here you will be cited for trespassing.
DeCaprio: This is the court case, which is against the city of Berkeley because of this. This is the stuff that proves residency; I have phone bills, and these are the receipts for bills, municipal homestead declaration, this is property taxes.
Stelzer: Eventually the city of Berkeley did arrest DeCaprio, and he was convicted of “unlawful entry into a residence.” The doors of his squat house were nailed, then welded shut. DeCaprio opened them back up a few times, but eventually he gave up on that property. But another house in Oakland—nicknamed “Noodle House”—turned out to attract much less attention from the authorities, and that’s the house where we met.
DeCaprio: It is at this point we can be here, we can enjoy the space, and it feels like home. It doesn’t feel like some desperate attempt at shelter.
Stelzer: There are three people living inside the house, and two tiny houses in the backyard, each of which is big enough for one person. Its rudimentary living. But it’s better than what a lot of people have in the crowded Bay Area. And after years of rebuilding, Noodle House looks pretty nice now. Sunlight streams through the windows, and there are lots of houseplants. The kitchen is well-stocked and the wooden furniture looks warm and homey. But DeCaprio has to use propane tanks for gas, heat, and hot water. He relies on solar panels for electricity, and not because he wants to conserve energy: The electric company refuses to turn on his power until he proves legal ownership of the place. As for those solar panels, they don’t quite give him enough juice.
DeCaprio: We don’t have a refrigerator, for example. We can charge electronic devices, power electronic devices, and have lighting in the house but not much more.
If at this point, you’re thinking, “Who is this guy, and how does he have the gall to just take over a random house that belongs to someone else?” You’re not alone.
CNN anchor: This is from the files of, what are you kidding me? You were homeless, you trespassed, moved into that house, and then just started paying taxes, and after a certain number of years that officially, legally made that place yours. Do I have it right?
Stelzer: This is DeCaprio being interviewed in 2013 by CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield.
Anchor: Maybe it’s legally OK, but isn’t it kind of morally yucky?
DeCaprio: Well, first of all, I’ll just let you know how this all began. Back in 1999, my band Lesser of Two was a punk hardcore band; we toured all over Europe. And in Europe, there are squats all over Europe, they have libraries, they have social centers, they have all sorts of activities, and it was really inspiring for me. And then I came back to the U.S., and I lost my job, lost my house, and I started squatting houses.
Stelzer: DeCaprio thinks of squatting as a political as much as an economic issue. And he says that goes back to his childhood in Fort Walton Beach, a small town in the Florida panhandle. When he was a kid, DeCaprio’s parents told him he was adopted—he’d actually been born to Lebanese parents. Fort Walton Beach is right next to an Air Force base, which meant lots of military families lived in town, and the base was a big part of the local economy. DeCaprio wasn’t a fan of the military, in part, because of his background.
DeCaprio: The military was involved in killing lots of people in the Middle East and so that I didn’t feel like I was part of the community. I gravitated towards other people who were outsiders and I gravitated toward the punk scene. We basically formed all our own little punk scene in this small town.
Stelzer: What did you play?
DeCaprio: I played guitar and I sang. If you call it singing. It was more like primal screaming.
Stelzer: In 1994, DeCaprio’s band, Lesser of Two, went on a U.S. tour. They found places to stay by looking in a publication called Book Your Own Effing Life. It was like a proto-Airbnb for punk musicians to find venues to play, record stores, and free places to crash when on the road.
DeCaprio: That was when I first came out to the Bay Area, and I met some people here that I really connected with, and I felt like this was a place that I wanted to be.
Stelzer: DeCaprio felt at home in Oakland, and soon after, he moved out here. He worked in vegetarian restaurants, lived cheap, participated in activist movements. Then in 1999, when his band toured Europe, DeCaprio got to play at a bunch of squats, the kind of communities he would come to admire the most.
DeCaprio: There was a squat in Switzerland, which had a bar, a movie theater, a garden, a café, housing. It had a laundry room. There was just hundreds of people living there, and that was pretty interesting. All the infrastructure they had.
Stelzer: DeCaprio wondered if the type of elaborate squats and organizing spaces he saw in Europe could exist in the U.S. And it wasn’t long before he found out.
DeCaprio: I only had housing when I came back from a European tour for three months before we got evicted. Things fell apart relatively quickly.
Stelzer: This was the tail end of the dot-com boom. Rents in the Bay Area had been continually rising for years. After his eviction, DeCaprio moved into a stairwell that was available in an activist squat called Hilarity House. And if that sounds bad, it was even rougher for some of his friends.
DeCaprio: This whole new concept of orbitals came about where people were living in cars and RVs and vans and paying some amount of rent to somebody who had a house or had a warehouse, so that they would actually have access to a shower and a kitchen even though they were in fact homeless themselves in a functional way. All of this stuff was happening so it was readily apparent to anyone who was paying attention that there was a huge—there’s huge economic forces causing massive citywide displacement. People were talking about how do we deal with this and contend with this?
Stelzer: This wasn’t feeling like a romantic tour of European squats, living out of a van with his bandmates, seeing the world. DeCaprio wanted some sort of stability. Since those early days, DeCaprio’s spent so much time researching and in court, he’s become an expert in adverse possession law. He’s started an organization, called Land Action that helps other individuals and groups in their struggles to occupy land.
DeCaprio: A lot of people thought that what I was trying to do was totally crazy and that it just couldn’t be done. Time and time again people would say, “Oh yes, we know about the squats in Europe, but you can’t do that here.” I’d hear that a lot. I guess I’m the kind of person when someone says, “You can’t do that.” I want to push back against your negativity and see and kind of think this through and see if you’re right because I don’t—I’m skeptical of what can’t be done.”
Sheir: Time for a break, but when we get back: how Steven DeCaprio’s kind of activism spread through the country after the financial crash of 2008, and how it’s brought up some really complicated questions about who can pursue “land action.”
Sheir: From Slate magazine, it’s Placemakers. I’m Rebecca Sheir. As we heard before the break, Oakland activist Steven DeCaprio found great success in pursuing something called “adverse possession.” And that success made him a bit of a celebrity among Bay Area activists.
Then this happened:
“I say Occupy, you say Occupy OK!
Sheir: When Occupy Wall Street started camping out in New York City’s financial district in September 2011, other Occupy protests sprung up across the country—including Oakland, California. But Occupy Oakland wasn’t content with a camp in front of city hall. Activists wanted to take on the housing crisis directly, by occupying houses and buildings across the city. And they called on Steven DeCaprio for advice.
DeCaprio: I just went in and was like, “If you’re going to occupy things you should do some research, and I’ll show you how to do research.” People just really didn’t even know where to start. How do we know how many houses are being foreclosed on? Then I would say, “OK. Well, you want to go down to the recorder’s office because the notice of default is filed with the recorder’s office.” Then people got that information, and that was a big organizing tool.
Sheir: This was the next step in Steven’s vision: to help create a network of occupied spaces, so that activists had an affordable base to work from. Andrew Stelzer picks up our story.
Stelzer: After Steven DeCaprio began holding free legal workshops during Occupy Oakland, he says the number of squats around town doubled, from six to about a dozen.
DeCaprio: I felt that that was proof positive that my vision was actually like a viable vision, which is that, no, we’re not going to solve the entire housing problem with occupied spaces but we can create a organizing infrastructure with those spaces.
Stelzer: Some new people were coming into the fold as well. Occupy Oakland was a moment that brought together activist communities that didn’t normally collaborate, like anarchist squatters and local black radicals. And those connections, forged under the banner of fighting capitalism, kept going even as the larger Occupy movement fragmented.
It’s the weekly Sunday morning breakfast line at Qilombo, a community center on a gritty stretch of Oakland’s San Pablo Avenue. Dozens of homeless and other poor people from the neighborhood come by for a heaping plate of home cooked food. Qilombo is a space focused on activism supporting local black and indigenous communities. Chaga Kwa Nia is one of its organizers.
Chaga Kwa Nia: Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of sympathy for Africans, you know African American type folks, and brown folks, and Hispanic type folks as well. There’s not a lot of love for us. We’ve just got to take the love where we can get the love.
Stelzer: A couple of years ago, Qilombo took over a vacant lot next door, which they turned into a community garden, called Afrikatown. Van Dellz is a volunteer at Afrikatown, one of dozens of people who’ve spent hundreds of hours turning this neglected space into a neighborhood jewel.
Van Dellz: When you walk around there’s not that much refuge anywhere. There’s no place of calm, and if you’re houseless, you’re just out in the elements all the time and laying on concrete most of the time. This is a place where there’s just grass. You can slide underneath our huge squash or underneath the sunflowers or wherever and just take a nap. Then you also see what you would expect from a community garden. You see people harvesting the spinach, and they’re like, “I didn’t know spinach didn’t come in cans.”
Stelzer: For people who already feel disenfranchised, having a space to be free, not beholden to anyone—even a landlord—can be really liberating. Dellz says although this isn’t housing per se, it provides shelter and hope to a community long in poverty, and now in the midst of a housing crisis. In 2015, Oakland rental prices were the second fastest rising in the entire country. And like seemingly every other artist or activist space, Afrikatown is under threat.
Dellz: The property owner, essentially, just wants to bulldoze the garden and get rid of it to make it more viable for a sale.
Stelzer: This lot sits only a few blocks from downtown, and on the edge of West Oakland, one of the most rapidly changing neighborhoods in the bay area. It’s been predominantly black since World War II.
Dellz: When you see development in this area, it’s not because they’re trying to help people, it’s because they’re bringing in the new plans and architecture of gentrification. They want there to be condominiums there, they want those large LLCs to buy up this block and transform it because in their eyes the best way to get rid of crime is to get rid of the people.
Stelzer: Steven DeCaprio has spent some time advising Qilombo on their options for protecting and preserving Afrikatown.
DeCaprio: The goal of land action has always been to access land for the purposes of social justice and environmental organizing, to create a network of occupied spaces that are committed to doing that work. I want to be able to get to a point where we have sufficient land, housing, and commercial resources to basically provide an ecosystem for political organizing. Yes, it would be basically an autonomous society within our society.
Stelzer: Chaga Kwa Nia attended several of Steven DeCaprio’s workshops back during the Occupy days of 2011.
Kwa Nia: He taught us about that whole process of checking out what the property, who the owner is. He gave us some game about obtaining land.
Stelzer: Anything you’ve been able to utilize?
Kwa Nia: I mean yeah. We’ve taken over a few properties for folks in the past with the information.
Stelzer: But it’s unclear how well DeCaprio’s strategy can work for people who don’t look like him—although he’s of Lebanese descent, he can easily pass for white.
Jon: The man just actually happened to know law so he was able to slide in where, you know, where he could. Which is cool, that’s beautiful. But people shouldn’t look at that as to be, “this is what we can do.”
Stelzer: This is Jon, an organizer at Qilombo, who didn’t want to give his last name because he’s worried the Afrikatown occupation might end up in court.
Stelzer: You don’t think that adverse possession strategy is—you’re saying it’s going to win in so rare circumstances.
Jon: Exactly. That it’s not really going to make an impact.
Kwa Nia: And it works more for like lighter-skinned folks than darker-skinned folks. Darker-skinned folks, they’re going to be like, “Oh you all are like trespassing. I’ll call the police.” We’re not going to have no sheriff process, no court process. It’s going to be like, “All you black people, get out. We’re calling the police.” No court process.
Stelzer: Qilombo followed a different model, though, one that DeCaprio approves. This place used to be called the Holdout. It was a mostly white, anarchist bookstore and activist space. In the years since Occupy Oakland, the anarchists handed it over to local black organizers. Kwa Nia says the transition was pretty smooth, and similar tactics have worked at squats around town.
Kwa Nia: So I remember when we first took over a house, we had some white folks go in it and stay in it, at first. It’s just to let the people in the neighborhood know, “Oh there’s some white people that moved in over there. OK, it’s about time that house is being utilized.” OK then we’re like, “You all leave now, now it’s time for us to come in.” Then we come in, and it’s a little bit more cooler, you know what I mean? Because people already know that there’s already been people in there. Then when they see the black folks, they probably like, “Oh that’s probably somebody they’re renting to.”
Stelzer: It’s an interesting strategy a little bit similar to what went down here. The handoff.
Kwa Nia: Exactly. The handoff.
Stelzer: DeCaprio’s helping other activists all he can, but he’s also dealing with his own business these days. He’s facing felony charges for another squat his organization was assisting with. Still, he knows now is a crucial time, as the number of vacant properties is dwindling and these next few years could go a long way to determining what kind of city Oakland will become.
DeCaprio: I can’t save the world, but maybe if I’m able to help 100 people access housing, we could then do something that makes it so that we can create a movement that actually has a viable chance of having an impact on our society that is beneficial, that would then lead to something down the line.
Stelzer: Back at his house, DeCaprio is showing me a bank full of electronics—and several giant batteries, each about the size of an old desktop computer.
DeCaprio: This is our battery bank that the house runs on. These wires come from the solar panels on the roof, goes into this controller. The green light that’s blinking shows that it’s charging right now. These batteries were salvaged from the railroad company.
Stelzer: DeCaprio’s had help over the past 10 years of painstaking work on this house, but he’s been the one constant, while others dropped in and out on the project. And he’s a bit tired. He recently lost a longtime job at the California League of Conservation Voters and says now that he’s in his 40s, he doesn’t want to live without the basics.
DeCaprio: I’m not a lifestyle activist. I just want to live in a conventional house. I just want to be like a normal person. I’m not trying to be this off-grid person living in this half-built house. We want to connect to the grid and get a refrigerator. I want a refrigerator. I want a freezer. I want a stove that has an oven that works properly. I’d like just the amenities that Americans have come to expect.
Stelzer: But despite the challenges of living in a semilegal, semifunctional pseudo-squat, in a neighborhood where he got shot and needs a guard dog, DeCaprio says he’s grateful.
DeCaprio: The amount of thankfulness I have for this house is just so profound and deep that no matter what else is happening, no matter the fact that I might be going to prison, or I might not have employment right now, or I might be attacked by people politically, refused my bar license, all of that stuff that’s going on, and it’s really stressful. With all that said, I have a home. Even with all the limitations of this property, it’s mine. So it’s something that I can never really take for granted.
Sheir: Steven DeCaprio’s battle for legal recognition as owner of his house came to a close just recently. In the end, the Alameda County Superior Court judged that Steven holds the title free and clear of anyone else’s claim, and he hopes to get connected to the electric grid any day now.
Our story today was reported by Andrew Stelzer. And special thanks to Marcus Owens for bringing our attention to this story. Placemakers is a production of Slate magazine and is produced by Mia Lobel, Dianna Douglas, and Michael Vuolo, and edited by Julia Barton. Our researcher is Matthew Schwartz. Eric Shimelonis does our mixing and musical scoring. Our theme was composed by Robin Hilton. Steve Lickteig is our executive producer. I’m Rebecca Sheir.
For more information about today’s show and other episodes of Placemakers, go to Slate.com/placemakers. You can drop us a line at email@example.com. You can follow us on Twitter; our handle is @SlatePlacemaker. And if you like what you’re hearing, please give us a review or rating on iTunes. It really does help.
Coming up next time on Placemakers: Thousands of people in Chicago are arrested and convicted each year. And when they get out of prison, they face a lot of barriers. Barriers that could send them right back behind bars.
Man: The struggle was I didn’t have nothing to put on a résumé, so I didn’t think nobody would hire me. But my peers encouraged me, “Go for it.”
Stelzer: We’ll meet an ex-convict who’s dedicated his life to beating the revolving door of recidivism.