The man who steals houses in Seattle
Seattle has a shortage of housing. But all over town, houses stand vacant. Either they’re in foreclosure, or they’re waiting to be torn down for development. Some people think vacant homes are an underused resource.
One man steals them.
Greg said the first time he snuck into an vacant house, it seemed like an easy decision. He was homeless, sleeping on couches and in cars and parks, and he was tired of it. A janitor by trade, he could not afford a house in Seattle.
He was just walking around the Central Area one day, when he saw the door to a house was wide open.
"So I go in there," he said, "And it was obvious that drugs and everything else had been used in there. But there was nobody in it. And being who I am, I went ahead and cleaned it up, put some locks on it, and called it my own.”
Squatters occupy buildings in many parts of town. We wanted to understand who some of these people are. That’s why we talked to Greg. We agreed not to use his last name, because squatting is illegal.
Greg’s been doing it for a couple years now. He moves from place to place. And now, he helps other homeless people to do the same.
These aren’t people just looking for a place to shoot up in the back room, though those people squat too. Greg and his followers take care of the places they stay.
“If you’re going to do this correctly, you’ve got to be the best tenant ever," he said. "You’ve got to be a better tenant than you were under a landlord. Seriously.”
And you have to keep your mouth shut. “There might be people in your family you cannot tell that you’re doing this," he said. Telling the wrong person could bring in the police and the social workers. Greg doesn’t want that.
Lately, he’s been staying in fewer foreclosures and more homes awaiting demolition. He’s currently in a house where a large apartment building will be built. He's been there for a year.
He tracks the permit process very carefully online so he’ll have plenty of warning before the building gets knocked down.
Meanwhile, he’s become like a regular homeowner. There was one time when a sewer pipe broke and flooded the basement.
“It was mud-like. It was like lava," he said. "It was all bad. So we were digging and scrubbing and sweeping and vacuuming.”
He’s also careful with how the neighbors perceive him. He looks clean and fit. He even takes care of the yard, when the neighbors aren’t looking.
“We try to be like ghosts," he said. "Almost as if whatever house we take just magically improves. It’s just this invisible hand comes, and suddenly, its blemishes are less and the lawn is low. And the folks that were doing whatever activities on the property that pissed people off are no longer there. And then over time, depending on the situation and the people around us, we’ll reveal ourselves — just as your neighbor.”
I took Greg’s story to Roger Valdez. He’s with Smart Growth Seattle, which represents the building industry.
Valdez said on the one hand, he likes seeing people solving problems in creative ways. He said some people have even turned squat management into an occupation, creating a black market of homes.
But builders aren’t prepared to deal with squatters. “You’re going into a dark, vacant building, and you don’t know who or what is in that building,” he said.
Valdez said builders tend to kick out their paying renters early on, because it’s hard to predict how long it will take to relocate them. But builders are not allowed to knock down homes until the building permit goes through. That can take years.
“The truth is we would much rather have someone occupying the building until the last possible moment until demolition,” he said.
That led the building industry to an unusual solution. A new program called Weld Seattle fills vacant houses with recently released inmates.
“So what that does is enables a building to be occupied. They keep an eye on it, they keep it clean, keep it orderly. And then they also are working in the construction industry. And so what Weld does is it also hooks them up with employment,” Valdez said.
Meanwhile, in the Central District, Greg is thinking about where he’ll go next, after his current building is demolished. “You always got to think about the next place," he said. "And now I’m gonna show you the one that’s about to be captured."
He showed me a quaint, one story brick apartment building. It looks like a nice place to live.
Greg's in no hurry. The construction notice sign just went up this summer.