Squat Teams

The Guardian reports on a team of squatters, the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians (yes, that’s ANAL), and their takeover of a mansion in Central London, purchased and left empty by a Russian oligarch since 2014.  As noted by a representative of the team, which has repeatedly taken over empty mansions:

It is criminal that there are so many homeless people and at the same time so many empty buildings. Our occupation is highlighting this injustice.*

Squatting is an inherently political act, and here it’s also something of an art form. But this squat is temporary; more like performance art than marble carving. A possession order is scheduled to be heard in court on January 31st to take the mansion back for the oligarch.

So what does it take to make a squat last?

Turning to more familiar shores, the shacks below were built and inhabited by squatters on Stanley Park in Vancouver in the early decades of the Twentieth Century.


For a long time, squatters were a regular and visible feature of Vancouver. They can still be found if you know where to look, but outside of performance art squats, as with the Woodwards Squat, they’re largely forced into maintaining invisibility. Steve Borik’s tidy little tarp-shack set up on an empty lot along the Fraser River is a case in point. He was able to live there for months, nice and quiet, until transit police stumbled over his shack in 2015.

As a general rule, squats and squatter communities no longer seem to successfully establish themselves in the UK, the US, Canada, or Australia. There are exceptions (like Dignity Village in Portland, up and running at its present site since 2001). And there have also been attempts to revive squatting as a movement, especially after the wave of foreclosures associated with the Great Recession of 2008. But contrast these experiments with much longer-running squats elsewhere, like Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark. Or even better, look to informal settlements in Mexico City, Delhi, and a wide variety of other cities.

So what determines why squats last as living communities in some places, while appearing more like performance art in others? Is the English colonial and common-law system to blame for developing in such a way to squash squats flat as soon as they spring to life? Is there something about settler societies, founded upon enclosure, dispossession, and active ignorance of competing claims, that leads to especially vigorous state interventions to clarify ownership? Fun ideas for future research, especially in light of the forthcoming workshop on Property Law in the City at UBC’s Allard Law School.


*- It’s worth noting that on quick glance, both the numbers of homeless and the numbers of empty buildings in London appear to be low, adjusting for the size of the city, relative to places like Vancouver. Also: London (and England in general) has a lot more social housing!


Reading and misreading Chinese immigration to Vancouver

Many of the reactions I’ve received to the recent write-up of my research with Jing in the Globe & Mail (and to my quick perusal of the comments section) seem to suggest that there’s something fundamentally dishonest and wrong about immigrants looking to make a better home for themselves in Vancouver.  I want to clarify that I don’t think this is the case.  The intent of my discussion with Frances was to make three things plain:

  1. Immigrants are people.  They’re a highly selected set of people, but they are fundamentally human.  This all too often gets lost in discussions about their impact on local housing.  That they’re mostly coming to Vancouver to make a better home for themselves is a fundamentally human thing to do.  And Vancouver is a great place to make a home.
  2. The selection processes concerning who gets invited to come to Vancouver matter.  Many (but not all) of these processes are policy-relevant.  Right now Canadian immigration policy selects heavily for “skill” and wealth (it is difficult to fully disconnect the two, though the skilled stream selects more upon our constructions of the former and business/investment streams have selected more for the latter).  The assumptions behind this selection are that these immigrants will most contribute to the dynamism of the Canadian economy.  As such, the policy is very much market-focused and oriented toward the business world rather than considering other motivations for immigration or broader questions about social justice.
  3. The selection processes concerning who makes a decision to come (or try to come) to Vancouver also matter.  Mostly those who make this decision already know (thanks to things like internet chat forums) that they will not have nearly as many economic opportunities in Canada as they already do in China.  If you’re really into economic dynamism and a high status career, you stay in China!  So most immigrants who come to Vancouver from China select themselves for being more interested in the quality of life in Canada. They want cleaner air, safer food, better and more sensitive education for their children.  They want a home life, where they can spend time with their children.  They also want a responsible and navigable bureaucracy, where they don’t need to know the right people or bribe their way to get what they feel they need.  These are all very human things to want, and they all involve appreciating what Canada has to offer – not free market dynamism, but rather careful restrictions and regulations placed around markets by a largely responsive government to make them work better for people.  [Yes, yes, Canada doesn’t always do this to my satisfaction, but compared to China we do it pretty well].

So mostly the people who select themselves to come to Canada are nice, home-loving sorts who really appreciate what Canada has to offer them.  But because of Canadian immigration policies (as well as the difficulties in navigating bureaucratic systems in China), they also tend to be quite privileged and well-off.  This is the world which my comment to Frances that, “Canada could look at letting in fewer millionaires and more refugees” was meant to reflect.  There are plenty of nice, home-loving sorts of people who would really appreciate what Canada has to offer them currently being excluded by Canadian immigration policies.  And many of them need better homes far more than the wealthy privileged folks we’re currently inviting to the country.  That said, I’m also quite sympathetic to letting in more immigrants period, and I don’t mean to suggest those who have already arrived are in any way undeserving.

So I’m not seeing villains, but are they out there?  Are corrupt officials, ruthless capitalists, and their extended family members also getting into Canada, and using immigration to hide their wealth?  This seems very likely.  There are corrupt officials, ruthless capitalists, and their extended family members from countries all over the world doing terrible things (I believe there might be one running for president of the United States at the moment).  And they often get away with it.  We should try and stop that from happening.  But I’d suggest these people are relatively rare, and they’re certainly a minority among immigrants to Vancouver.  Indeed, the folks we talked to were selected for rejecting that aspect of life in China.  They came to Canada to get away from cronyism and corruption.

So I think villains are quite rare, but it’s worth noting that the wealth flowing into places like Vancouver has had an enormous impact on local life. Housing prices, in particular, have risen astronomically, motivating much of the ire at new immigrants, especially those coming from China. We should acknowledge that regardless of the intentions of wealthy immigrants, they’re contributing to processes of gentrification on a global scale. It’s important that we work to figure out equitable ways of dealing with this  from a policy standpoint (I’m not sure the foreign-buyer tax qualifies, but I’ll admit it represents at least an effort).  But it’s also important that we work on this without demonizing immigrants.

Immigrants arriving for better homes, not better money

About a month ago, local reporter Frances Bula ran a story in The Globe & Mail where she went out and actually talked with many of the wealthy Chinese immigrants at the heart of many local debates (mostly over housing).  I thought it was a good story!  I also thought it sounded a lot like the story I’d been working on getting into an academic journal with a grad student since 2014.  After a lengthy review process, that story was finally accepted for publication in Social Problems (our first choice) earlier this year, but academic publishing being what it is, who knows when it will actually come out.  I sent Frances a note about how much I appreciated her article and I mentioned that in many respects she’d scooped us!  I attached our paper.  In her generous response, she wrote up a little piece about our research, out today in the Globe & Mail under the title, “Wealthy Chinese migrants come for better housing, not money: study.”

It’s a fine little write-up.  Thanks Frances!  But after I sent it to my co-author, UBC Sociology PhD Candidate Jing Zhao, she suggested she would’ve substituted “homes” for “housing” in the title, which is more or less what I’ve done above.  (Also the article is coming out in Social Problems instead of Social Work, but that’s a minor quibble for anyone not invested in academia!)

Here I wanted to post a link to the Pre-Print Version of the full article directly for those interested in reading it.  I’m slowly getting the hang of where and how copyright works – mostly in this case just by closely reading the fine-print of the copyright agreement where it notes my rights to distributing pre-prints!  Building on this, I’m hopeful I’ll get most of my old and new work out in the public domain in some form or another through this blog and other venues (like my Faculty website). So here’s today’s piece (with citation and abstract):

Nathanael Lauster & Jing Zhao.  Labor Migration and the Missing Work of Home-making: Three Forms of Settling for Chinese-Canadian Migrants.  Forthcoming in Social Problems.


Much of migration theory has come to revolve around the category of the “labor migrant,” without taking into account labor, like home-making, that remains unrecognized by the market. Drawing from qualitative interviews with thirty one Chinese migrants in different stages of making a move from Beijing to Vancouver, we attempt to bring better visibility to how the labor involved in home-making intersects with migration. Defining home-making as work in the pragmatic-existentialist context of the stabilization of everyday routines, we uncover three themes to home-making work: settling in, settling down, and settling for. Discussion of these themes reveals two important issues for migration theory: settlement relies upon the work of home-making and the work of home-making in many cases motivates migration. For these reasons, the work of home-making should be more carefully studied within the migration literature.


At Home Looks Like…

A few years ago I received a grant (with co-I Frank Tester) to explore more closely the connections between housing and home in two locations with marked housing crises: Vancouver, BC and Arviat in Nunavut.  And so the Making Housing Home project was born. The basic starting point for the work was that housing was an important component of home, but did not, in and of itself, constitute home.  Instead home could be found in our routines and connections to a wide variety of people, places, and things.  So we set out to document everyday routines and their relationship to housing.  Mostly we worked through in-depth interviews and collaborative calendar and map construction projects.  But we tried as many different ways to get at home as we could think of.  One sub-project involved working intensively with youth in both Arviat and Vancouver to get cameras and some basic photography training into their hands and let them document what “at home” looked like for them.

One member of my research team, Karina Czyzewski, took an especially critical lead role in this sub-project.  Working with the youth in Vancouver, and with other team members, she put together an exhibit at the Roundhouse Community Centre.  Then she brought photos and descriptions of home together into this wonderful booklet, which we printed off and gave to all youth participants and several other community partners in both Arviat and Vancouver. I’m now providing an electronic copy of the booklet here to get as wide exposure for it as possible.

So here’s the booklet!  (Or click on the image below!  Note: 19MB size file)


While our research is still on-going, and I’ve got a whole lot of data analysis ahead of me, I think this is a good time to get some of the voices of our participants out there, speaking in their own words about their experiences of home.  I think the results speak for themselves.  So… at least for the moment… I’ll stop talking about them.  Enjoy, and feel free to share widely!

Seattle Conferencing – ASA & SSSP

Just putting this up for anyone interested in the two talks I’ll be giving at the two professional Sociology conferences being held simultaneously in Seattle this week!

At the American Sociological Association (ASA), I’ll be presenting a paper related to (but distinct from) my book project on the Death and Life of the Single-Family House.  It will be part of the Regular Session, Performing Parenthood in Social Context, convening Saturday at 2.30pm in the Seattle Sheraton (4th Floor, Seneca Room).  (see here for other events going on that day). Title & Abstract:

Housing Parenthood: Performing a role on an unsettled stage – N. Lauster

How do people construct the social role of parenthood?  What gets enrolled as part of the performance?  What are the implications of unsettling expectations?  In this paper I pay special attention to how housing relates to the performance of parenthood, drawing upon qualitative analysis of in-depth interviews with 50 residents of Vancouver, Canada.  Frequently depicted as the most unaffordable metropolis in North America, Vancouver offers a culturally “unsettled” environment where single family homes, in particular, have moved rapidly out of reach for the vast majority of residents.  In general terms, analysis of interviews illuminates how housing provides a material scaffolding for the role of parenthood; offering up both a stage for the performance of parenthood and a crucial retreat from the stage.  More specifically, I call special attention to how people treat ownership of a single family home variously as: 1) a pre-packaged co-requisite, 2) a prerequisite, 3) inconsequential, or 4) a foil to performing the role of parenthood.  In addition to shaping the role of parenthood, the balance between these four treatments of single family home ownership has important implications for how housing policies and markets influence both childbearing and mobility.

Meanwhile, at the conference next door, The Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP), I’ll be presenting a very different paper based on my musings (working with my co-authors) concerning hoarding disorder and its relationship to broader discourses about how people are understood to normally relate to their environments.  This will be the first time I’ve ever presented at SSSP!  My paper here will be part of the Session on Health and the Environment, convening Sunday at 4.30pm (absolute last panel of the conference) in the Westin Seattle Hotel (Mercer Room). (Full program here) Title & Abstract:

Making Room for Thought: Contrasting Models of Human-Environment Relations in the Conceptualization and Diagnosis of Hoarding Disorder – N. Lauster, C. Bratiotis, S. Woody

Hoarding behavior, at first glance, bridges academic worlds concerned with health and environment insofar as “hoarders” seem to exemplify just how rampant consumerism can lead us all awry.  Yet at least a few commentators have suggested the opposite: by virtue of saving rather than discarding, those labeled hoarders often view themselves as rejecting consumerist logics and instead fostering sustainability.  The psychiatrists and psychologists who actually study hoarding focus less on the broader social and cultural implications of the phenomenon than on its impact as a mental disorder affecting the well-being of the individuals involved.  We argue here that this is both laudable – hoarding has real impacts on well-being that are too often overlooked – and a fundamental mistake.  The debate over how people should and do relate to their environments is of central importance to the conceptualization and etiology of hoarding as a disorder.  We demonstrate how one position within this debate, that people’s relationships to their environment are best modeled along the utilitarian lines of consumers (see also, homo economicus) has been implicitly adopted within the psychological and psychiatric diagnosis of hoarding.  We contrast this position with an alternative; what might be learned by basing conceptualizations of hoarding in the model of people as builders and dwellers?  This model takes seriously home-making as a collection of human orientations toward the environment.  Its adoption could offer up new implications for the etiology and conceptualization of hoarding as a disorder.



Pre-sale Media Coverage: The Death and Life of the Single-Family House

A few local media outlets have picked up interest in my book since I announced it was available for pre-sale on twitter and this blog.  On the one hand, this is great!  I really welcome the exposure for both the book and the ideas it contains.  On the other hand, I worry (together with my publisher’s media rep) about too much early exposure before the book is actually available (October!).  I don’t really know what the right balance is – we don’t get a lot of media training in academia – but I’ll keep working on figuring it out.  In the meantime, I ask for patience from interested reporters with my ham-fisted efforts to manage the roll out of the book and its ideas, and I’m hopeful interest continues into when the book is actually ready to fall into readers’ hands.

For now here’s the audio clip from a recent interview talking about my forthcoming book with Stephen Quinn on CBC’s On The Coast.  (Or you can just listen to the whole August 11th, 2016 show).  I’m a regular listener, so it was really fun to meet Stephen Quinn and Amy Bell and see the inside of the CBC studio. [Update: and here’s the CBC write-up].

Prior to the radio interview, Jen St. Denis also interviewed me about the book for the Metro News, in a nice little piece posted here.  I think the piece was good, but it’s worth making two quick clarifications:

1) The 80% of land base figure speaks to 80% of land set aside to support residential uses (rather than 80% of all land as a whole), and covers the municipality of Vancouver. Metro Vancouver has data on land use broken down by municipality (and a lot of other data besides!)  Also Jens von Bergmann over at MountainMath (mentioned in the piece) has a beautiful map breaking down land use by lot within the City of Vancouver, which everyone should check out.  It really demonstrates just how much land has been set aside for single-family detached houses (almost entirely in protected RS zones, though there are also duplexes in RT zones and houses in Shaughnessy included, along with a scattering of old houses remaining in places unprotected by zoning).

2) The accompanying photo for the piece, as multiple people have pointed out, looks like it was taken at Mole Hill, which is a lovely little development preserving and rehabilitating old houses downtown by subdividing them up into apartments.  To be clear, the census would not consider these to be single-family detached houses, nor would the city.  But the ambiguity of how they LOOK like houses (and very photogenic ones at that) is really interesting.  This speaks to the focus of my first chapter in the book, laying out just what we talk about when we talk about single-family detached houses, and how the legal categories don’t always match people’s lay understandings of what counts as a house.  It also speaks to the many possibilities for subdividing existing houses to support more households – if zoning laws were modified to allow such a thing (it’s already the case, of course, that most RS zoned lots in Vancouver can now already support up to three households through secondary suite and laneway housing provisions).


Home on the Road

In my younger days, after working a variety of odd jobs and building up a a bit of savings, I set out with my dog in a little red truck with a cap on the back to travel across North America.  I didn’t really know the term “gap year” at the time, but that’s kind of what it ended up being, tucked between my undergraduate degree, a little more schooling, and a lengthy career as a graduate student.  I enjoyed life on the road, often pulling up and sleeping in the back of the truck at campgrounds and out-of-the-way parking lots across the USA.  I had a campstove for cooking and carried plenty of water.  Whenever I wanted, I could roll out my sleeping bag in the back, with a pad beneath it, and I slept reasonably comfortably.  At least once I was asked to move along by concerned police officers.

Some years later, a good friend of mine took up much the same lifestyle, living out of his van.  But he remained mostly in place, in Seattle.  He did it to save money.  Later, he also lived out of an office space for awhile.  Both arrangements, of course, were illegal according to municipal codes.  We actually  had several conversations (and put together a presentation for a sociological conference) concerning how we understood his arrangements vis-a-vis homelessness.  Certainly most people working homeless counts would readily have counted my friend as homeless (and might also have counted me as homeless had I passed through town during my truck-living days).  Below is the City of Vancouver’s 2016 Homeless Count definition (see here for the last Metro count):

The 2016 Homeless Count uses the same definition of homelessness used in previous City and regional homeless counts. Someone was considered homeless for the purpose of this count if:
* they did not have a place of their own where they could expect to stay for more than 30 days and if they did not pay rent.
This included people who are:
* without physical shelter staying on the street, in alleys, doorways, parkades, vehicles [my emphasis], on beaches, in parks and in other public locations
* temporarily accommodated in emergency shelters, detox facilities, safe houses or transition houses for men, youth, women, and families with children
* staying at someone else’s place (friend or family) where they did not pay rent (i.e.couch surfing)
* in hospitals or jails and had No Fixed Address (NFA)
For example, someone who stayed in a garage would be considered homeless if they did not pay rent, even if they considered the garage to be their home. Emergency shelters are not considered permanent housing, thus shelter clients are included in the homeless population. Someone who stayed at a friend’s place where they did not pay rent (i.e. couch surfer) is also considered homeless as they do not have security of tenure.

Seems pretty clear: living in vehicles = homelessness (especially without paying rent).

So what to make of the many folks who live in vehicles that were built for living?  They don’t fit well into municipal definitions of home, but in many cases they also don’t quite fit our preconceptions of homelessness.   My truck was admittedly borderline, but its little shell had windows and was made to support camping.  My buddy’s van was even better equipped.  Pieces in the Vancouver Sun and the Globe & Mail (the latter by a former student, Wanyee Li), both speak to the attractiveness of these alternative forms of living for some people.  But in many cases, these are folks who straddle the line between homelessness and home.

Strikingly, it doesn’t take all that much more, symbolically speaking, to shove people more clearly into the “home on the road” camp and out of the “homeless” camp.  My wonderful sister and her family (including husband, two girls, and two dogs) recently embarked on an adventure, buying a 31 foot Winnebago Vista.  They were written up, together with two other intrepid families, in this piece in the Baltimore Sun (Permanent copy complete with photos archived here).


Pretty awesome.  And ok, I’ll admit it: mostly I just wanted to blog about my sister.  But there’s also an interesting point here: I don’t think any observer would reasonably consider my sister and her family homeless.  Yet note how they’re coupled with a family living in tighter and somewhat cheaper circumstances.  Does the boundary grow fuzzier again when we move from RVs to Vans?  Does it matter that it’s a touring van attached to a band?  Or if van residents only become homeless when their vans become mostly stationary, like the one my friend lived in, then how should we think about the greater stability of a stationary residence contributing to a definition of homelessness?

These are all tricky questions, and they occur mostly at the margins.  To be very clear, in raising these questions I’m not doubting the problem of homelessness in Vancouver or expressing skepticism concerning local homeless counts.  We’ve got real problems here.

BUT, all that said, we also have a problem in restricting what we consider decent housing and thereby diminishing diversity by legal fiat.  To return to a major theme: this is a BIG problem when it comes to locking away land for single-family detached houses and such houses alone.  But it’s also a problem when we fail to consider and make room for alternative forms of homes that people might want to try, including life on the road.

The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: available for pre-sale!

Did you know that Vancouver has moved the fastest and the furthest away from reliance upon single-family houses of any metropolis in North America?  Only Montreal competes for the title of least house-dependent.  I have a new book coming out that traces the history of Vancouver’s dramatic transformation and describes its effects on residents, as detailed by interviews with locals. More broadly, the book makes the case that this is mostly a positive development, primarily dependent upon regulatory innovation, that has many lessons for other metropolitan areas across the continent.

The book, The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City, hits shelves on October 16th, but I’m happy to announce that it’s now available for pre-sale!  It will be part of the broader series by Temple University Press on Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy.


Click on the image link to see the promotional flyer, complete with a pre-sale discount code!  Please feel free to distribute the flyer widely!  The book is also now available for pre-sale via Amazon (Canada) , Amazon (USA), Bibliovault, and other related book sites, but you may not get the discount via these locations!

Cluttering up the news

Several years ago I got a call out of the blue from Sheila Woody, a UBC Psychology professor, asking if I might be interested in working together on some hoarding research.  Fortunately this came about less due to an inspection of my office and more because she’d stumbled across my research profile and discovered I had an interest in housing and the making of home.  This is one of those collaborations where, even though I found real potential in the research that overlapped with my own interests in intriguing ways, I was drawn to the work in no small part by how much I enjoyed working with the colleague involved.  Sheila and her team (now also including Christiana Bratiotis) are a lot of fun, and I’m delighted to report that some of our first findings are now out and have just been covered by both the Vancouver Sun and the CBC (where they also have nice pictures of Sheila and some team members).

Looking at two waves of inspections data provided by a collaboration with the City of Vancouver, we estimated the prevalence of problematic clutter in the SRO rooms regularly inspected by the City.   We wrote up the results and published them in Housing Studies with the title:

How much of too much? What inspections data say about residential clutter as a housing problem.

.  Here’s the abstract (Full study here):

How big of a housing problem is residential clutter? In this paper, we draw upon inspections data in Vancouver to both estimate the size of the problem and detail how it is observed and constituted through municipal regulatory processes. We contrast the inspections approach to residential clutter with the mental health approach, which focuses on hoarding disorder. Inspections data indicate the problem of residential clutter is potentially larger than might be expected by the epidemiology of hoarding disorder, and also point toward the many risks associated with clutter. Using our best estimate, approximately seven per cent of low-income, dense, single-room occupancy (SRO) housing units inspected were identified by inspectors as problematically cluttered, indicating a sizable problem. Larger buildings and those managed as social housing were more likely than other buildings to have many units identified as problematically cluttered. Strikingly, for given buildings, estimates of problematic clutter tended to remain relatively stable across time, inspector, and inspection method.

The big takeaway for me is that residential clutter is a real housing problem.  That seven percent covers a lot of rooms, creating big headaches for housing managers  and neighbors as well as the residents of cluttered rooms themselves.  Indeed, in some buildings we studied, up to a third of rooms were problematically cluttered with possessions.  It’s not clear that all of this is the result of hoarding as a mental health issue, but it fits with broader evidence of the epidemiology of hoarding.  It also squares with the informal feedback I get when I touch base with many people working in the social housing sector in Vancouver.  Even without prompting, they regularly point to hoarding as a big obstacle they face in keeping people housed and healthy.  So I’m really happy that we’ve put this on the academic radar, not just as a mental health issue, but also as a broader housing issue.  I’m also happy I get to keep working with Sheila and the team toward better understanding what’s going on.

Incidentally, Vancouver’s Hoarding Action Response Team (HART) is broadly recognized as a leading collaborative resource enabled to coordinate responses for those struggling with hoarding.