Sure, Let’s Focus on Squatters, Not Vacant Real Estate and Systemic Poverty

David Friedlander
6 min readApr 11, 2024
Pretty vacant, and we should care.

The news has been awash recently with stories about squatters. In LA, a man calling himself the “Squatter Hunter” is combating that city’s squatters by squatting with them, presumably being so annoying a squatmate that the first squatters leave. Florida governor Ron DeSantis recently revoked squatter rights in response to an uptick of squatting in that state. Atlanta takes the cake with “around 1,200 homes” across the metro area with squatters according to Bloomberg. Worse yet, these squatters are “hitting big names in America’s single-family-rental business, including Starwood, Cerberus Capital Management’s FirstKey Homes and Amherst Group — all of which have had dozens of properties with squatters.” On the surface, these stories are troublesome. Has the country devolved to a point where evil people can simply take what they want from hardworking homeowners and not-quite-as-hard-working private equity investors?

But the squatting situation is not quite as simple as the media wants us to believe. Missing from the headlines are the reasons why there is so much vacant real estate to squat in or why squatting and homelessness are the only affordable housing option for so many. It’s my hope to correct these omissions with this piece.

Why Is There So Much Vacant Housing For Squatters to Squat In?

It bears mentioning the obvious: that squatters squat in vacant real estate. The presence of a homeowner or tenant is usually enough to prevent squatters from squatting in a home. If someone tries to squat in a lawfully occupied home, that someone is called an intruder, not a squatter, and the home occupier can call the police to forcefully remove them.

No, squatting is a phenomenon limited to areas with vacant real estate, typically coupled with high costs of living. There are many such areas in the US today. To recap, here are some conservative tallies of vacant housing (and real estate, more generally) in the US from my piece, “FFS, Stop Saying There’s a Housing Shortage in America”:

  • An estimated 5.5 million housing units sit vacant in the nation’s 50 largest metro areas (source).
  • New York City had at least 102,900 market rate vacant units (source) and another 40,000–90,000 empty rent stabilized ones (source) as of 2021.
  • San Francisco had at least 60,000 vacant units (15 percent of all homes) as of 2021 (source).
  • 2,300 of Boston’s 41,500 state subsidized units were vacant last year (source).
  • A recent report found that Denver had 22,673 vacant units (source).
  • BONUS: At least 1 billion square feet of empty office space. While imperfect as housing, most of this space would represent a huge upgrade from living in unaffordable housing or the streets. (source).

Much of this vacant real estate is a result of the period between 2009 and 2022, when the US Treasury and Federal Reserve maintained historically low interests to revive the economy after the “Great Recession.” This cheap debt was perfect for purchasing housing and other real estate.

Between 2009 and 2022, interest rates were kept at historically low rates, which set up the conditions for today’s glut of empty real estate.

Not everyone could buy real estate with these low rates, however. The 2008 mortgage crisis made lending criteria much stricter, and would-be middle and low income homeowners were left out of this debt bacchanal. But low interest rates were a boon to rich individuals and institutional investors, who could borrow against their existing wealth to buy investment properties, bigger primary homes, and second and third homes. And why wouldn’t they? In most cases, the cost of servicing a property’s debt was lower than its revenue and/or its appreciation, so there was little downside to leaving properties vacant until they leased out or sold.

While more and more people became unable to afford one home, America’s richest folks bought second homes at record rates. This trend stopped abruptly in early 2022 with increased interest rates.

Sitting on real estate for speculative gains was supercharged by short term rental (STR) companies like Airbnb and VRBO. In the past decade, STRs reduced the number of available homes for would-be renters and drove up prices on the limited number of leftover homes. Critically, STRs gave property owners a way to make as much or more money on their properties without dealing with messy leases, rent collection, evictions, and tenant rights. In 2022, Brooklyn — my home of many years and one of the least affordable cities in the US — made headlines with the fact that the borough had more Airbnb listings than standard rental listings.

It’s really important to understand that what made real estate derived wealth possible were low interest rates set by the US Treasury and Federal Reserve. It was a government handout for the country’s richest folks. These folks were supposed to use the handout to invest in real estate (and stocks, businesses, etc.) that would create inevitable positive, ahem, trickle down economic effects for the poors — jobs in construction, maintenance, infrastructure, cleaning, landscaping, etc. This was the formula in 2008 after the mortgage crisis and 2020 after the lockdown.

Rather than causing an evenly distributed economic uptick, the low rates consolidated wealth and real estate ownership into an increasingly small, absurdly rich population, while the masses lived in ever-increasing states of financial precariousness. As tends to happen, the dam of greed prevented the economic trickle from trickling down. According to Forbes, 78 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck in 2024.

The cheap debt gravy train ended in early 2022. Before you start to worry, know that the rich are doing great, sitting on mountains of cash and buying megayachts and what not. But the era of no risk speculative real estate development and investment, profitable flips, windfall refinancings, and cash-spewing STR portfolios seem to be drawing to a close. The after effect of this era is a growing supply of vacant real estate and trillions of dollars of bound-for-default debt.

More chronically poor people + more vacant properties = squat[ting]

A big portion of Covid-related stimulant money was issued in the form of mortgage back securities (MBS), not currency. These MBS were largely used to build, buy, and refinance housing…because there’s a housing crisis, ya know? Many of properties financed before early 2022 are just hitting the market, but folks are too poor to buy or rent them. Similarly, many of the areas that underwent building benders — Denver, Boise, Houston, and elsewhere — have housing oversupplies, i.e. they have more homes than can be purchased or rented in that marketplace. Widespread crackdowns on STRs are also inspiring their owners to sell, leading to even more vacant real estate. Meanwhile, stagnant wage growth coupled with inflation and soaring costs of living have gutted America’s low and middle income populations. Downstream impacts of all this are rapidly growing homeless populations, which are swelling with immigrant populations as well.

The rich are richer than ever, increasingly able to satisfy any material desire now matter how trivial or destructive. The poor are getting poorer by the second, lacking homes, food, and places in society. But sure, let’s focus on squatting and the travails of rich homeowners and private equity real estate outfits like “Starwood, Cerberus Capital Management’s FirstKey Homes and Amherst Group.” This focus makes about as much sense as anything nowadays.

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David Friedlander

Pondering the future, today. Housing, health, and lots of other stuff.