Housing Shortage Prompts Squatters to Rehabilitate Buildings (June 12, 1989)

By Russell W. Baker, Special to The Christian Science Monitor / June 12, 1989

NEW YORK is a city of ironies. It has enormous numbers of homeless people – and equal numbers of empty apartments. Upward of 50,000 people are without permanent shelter, and countless tens of thousands live doubled or tripled up in crowded apartments. Yet New York City owns more than 5,000 empty buildings, which if fixed up, could eliminate the shortage.The city has an ambitious program to rehabilitate the buildings, many of which the owners abandoned or lost for nonpayment of taxes. Although officials say they are moving as fast as possible, housing experts say it will be a very long time before most homeless New Yorkers can expect a place of their own.

Now, an increasing number of citizens are taking matters into their own hands. They are moving into the shuttered structures, repairing them and making homes for themselves, especially on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where one of the largest concentrations of city-owned abandoned buildings lies.

Technically, what they are doing is illegal. But the squatters don’t see the harm. “If squatting is illegal, it’s like taking bread from a restaurant’s garbage,” says one longtime squatter, Will Sales.

What is most striking about the squatters is their self-sufficiency. They want nothing from the government, they say, other than to be left alone to spruce up the decaying buildings.

“It seems to bother them that we’re doing this on our own,” says Joe, a construction worker who lives in a squat. “I don’t understand why – we’re making good use of the space, providing housing for people. It’s part of our nature – to make shelter for ourselves.”

The city says it is willing to compromise in some cases. “There have been squatters who have for long periods of time demonstrated a desire to care for their building, and often upgraded it,” says Edgar Kulkin, special assistant to the city’s Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) commissioner. “If a building is safe, or not being used for another program, a squatter can sometimes work out arrangements with the city.”

But New York City has been condemning and demolishing an increasing number of squatter buildings recently. Miriam Friedlander, who represents the Lower East Side on the City Council, says such demolitions are often unnecessary, because in most situations the buildings could have been shored up. A number of prominent architects concur. Ms. Friedlander says she has tried unsuccessfully to get the city to bring in experts for cost estimates on saving the buildings.

Last month, matters turned violent when squatters and neighborhood sympathizers faced off against riot police over a demolition taking place on the Lower East Side’s 8th Street. Residents point out that six other squats on the same block have been destroyed by fire or demolished in the past two years.

Fire damage, often from arson, is a chief factor leading to demolition orders. Squatters contend, although they have provided no evidence, that the fires are set to get them out to make way for luxury buildings. “Gang members get paid to torch the buildings,” says Jack Talbot, a young construction worker who lives in the remaining squat on 8th Street. “We have an arson watch 24 hours a day.” Mr. Talbot also says he has been brutally attacked inside his building by large groups of men who were trying to force him to leave. He says he has rigged up a homemade defense system just inside the door to rout future assailants.

Many residents say the squatter situation is emblematic of a greater conflict between the bohemians and working-class people who have long populated the neighborhood, and upwardly mobile professionals who are becoming an ever-increasing percentage of New York’s population.

“The homeless problem is part of the effort to get the poor out of New York,” says a squatter who would identify himself only as Joe. “We know they want rich people in here.”

Bhagat Sajan is a young man who lives in one of the numerous new or rebuilt structures, which are increasingly popping up in the neighborhood. A sign out front advertises “Co-ops for sale, apartments for rent.” Before Mr. Sajan and his mother were evicted from their previous apartment, their rent was $390. Today, just 10 months later, they pay $1,195 for a smaller apartment. Their new building looks fancy, with its marble-like columns and pink trim. But the columns are of plywood, and the walls are thin.

Although Sajan and his mother manage to pay the rent, their circumstances are not unlike the squatters’. Sajan says his mother doesn’t want to leave the neighborhood. As for himself, he says, “I’m moving out of here. One day there won’t be people like me in Manhattan.”

“We have people in the building who grew up in the community,” says one squatter, who herself was a rent-paying tenant in the building before it was abandoned.

Squatters are a diverse group. Among them are the elderly, families, babies, the unemployed, workers, and artists of all races. Jo-Ann Jones, an older woman, became homeless after the family she lived with was burned out of its apartment. Being on disability, she couldn’t afford the more than $1,000 rent on a comparable place in the same area. For three years after she moved into her squat, she did not hook up hot water or heat – she was too worried that the city would discover her.

Many squatters, however, move right ahead with remodeling work. Typically, squatters fix up their own apartments during the week, and work together on common areas on weekends. Some of the squatters are expert in plumbing, carpentry, or other skills, and teach their neighbors. On any Saturday, large numbers of people wearing hard hats can be seen stripping, hammering, and carting garbage from the several dozen buildings under repair throughout the neighborhood.

Many have done remarkable things with their apartments, and while some are quite primitive, others are elaborately decorated. Some have no heat; others have all the services an ordinary apartment-dweller would expect, including water, power, phone service, and mail delivery. Many of the buildings have tenants associations, which approve new arrivals, and through which decisions are made. Residents are commonly required to follow rules against stealing, violence, and hard drugs.

The squatters say that in a neighborhood with a growing crack problem, where abandoned buildings are frequently used for drug sales and prostitution, they are a stabilizing element. Many rent-paying neighbors say they agree.

Roz Post of the city’s HPD argues a fairness issue. Even if the buildings are – or could be made – structurally sound, she says, it is not right for squatters to receive housing ahead of other homeless people who have been on waiting lists for years. Council member Friedlander suggests the city show that it is serious about providing housing by turning more of the buildings over to nonprofit organizations that have the capability to fix them up.

Meanwhile, the squatters and their supporters say that if the city tries to knock down more of the buildings they call home, they will not stand idly by. It could be, they warn, a long, hot summer.

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