For Squatters in Detroit, Housing Isn’t Shameful

Tanya Benson’s family was months behind on rent when they moved into an abandoned home. She says they’ve put more care and effort into making it a home than the owners did.

Detroiter Tanya Benson likes to bake. Today, she’s baking a 7 Up pound cake, which, yes, uses the pop drink, for her kids — from scratch. 

“I really do take pride in my baking,” Benson says. “I just be in my own little zone. This what brings me comfort.”

Last year turned her passion into a business. She sells these dense cakes and dainty little muffins at a cafe and runs her baking business out of her home in Detroit. 

“No one has the guts to squat until you get into a bind where you have a family.” — Tanya Benson, resident

Courtesy of Tanya Benson
Courtesy of Tanya Benson

That’s a bold move. She’s doesn’t own this home. She’s not even renting. And she doesn’t really know who the place belongs to — there wasn’t anyone around who cared enough to stop her when she moved in.

Benson is a squatter. 

“I am very open about squatting,” she tells me as she measures out ingredients. “I’m not ashamed about it. No one has the guts to squat until you get into a bind where you have a family.” 

For years, the Bensons lived in apartments. But as their family grew, so did their needs. It got hard to keep up with all the monthly expenses. When their eviction papers came, they didn’t wait around for their court date. The family — Tanya, her husband and three kids — moved into the house about two years ago. 

“We moved in here at night,” she says. “The front door, it was boarded up. And the back door was wide open.” 

People have called her crazy for squatting. But she defends their actions.

“We felt like it wasn’t their property no more because of how they treated it,” she says of the owners. “We made it our own. We ripped up the carpet. We paid a guy to come in and put in new drywall.”

And there’s still plenty of work to do. A local non-profit recently obtained deeds for some of these neglected properties in the neighborhood, helping squatters with housing issues. Now, the Bensons have a chance to finally buy the house they’ve made their home. 

Click on the player above to hear Tanya Benson talk about housing insecurity, squatting and finding a home in Detroit.

This story was produced for the Transom Traveling Workshop in Detroit, Mich.

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