Exclusive: City to Let Squatters Sit Comfortably at Home

Print More

Umbrella House, Serenity, C Squat, Bullet Space: These and seven more of the Lower East Side’s last squats are about to come in from outside the law. For the first time since the real estate boom of the 1980s, the city has agreed to turn renegade tenants into perfectly legal co-op owners.

On Monday, August 19, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), a local nonprofit that helps tenants take over and run their buildings, is expected to officially purchase the 11 city-owned buildings for $1 apiece. All 11 buildings have been illegally occupied for years or even decades by squatters–people who moved into city-owned buildings when they were vacant or half-empty, fixed them up and inhabited them by the grace of sweat equity, and without the city’s permission.

“For me, ‘squatters’ means a group of people who don’t have a landlord, who are their own landlord,” said squatter John Wagner, who lives in Serenity House at 733 East 9th Street. “It has to do with people not being thrown out of their house because they don’t have their rent on the first.”

But to the city, squatters always meant criminal trespassers. During the 1990s, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) evicted thousands of squatters, sometimes with riot cops, armored vehicles, even helicopters–especially on the Lower East Side, where squatters welded doors shut and even barricaded streets when the city came to kick them out.

For years, the city argued that legalizing squatters retroactively–letting them buy the buildings they fixed up themselves–would be rewarding illegal behavior. Now, with UHAB as intermediary, HPD has gone out of its way to protect the squatters: In Umbrella House, the agency even paid to make renovations when the Fire Department declared serious fire code violations last fall. “That was like, ‘Wha? HPD’s paying to fix our fire escapes?'” said Umbrella House resident Siobhan Meow.

HPD Commissioner Jerilyn Perine declined repeated requests for an interview. But her spokesperson described the unprecedented cooperation between the squatters and their longtime nemesis as in keeping with HPD’s policy of conveying its abandoned properties to “quality, non-profit developers,” adding “We are confident that UHAB will make sure the buildings are rehabilitated and become safe, decent and affordable housing for local residents.”

The 200-plus squatters of the Inner City Press Homesteaders, who have installed utilities, new boilers, shared phone lines and community rooms in over a dozen South Bronx buildings, took heart from Loisaida’s victory. “If there’s a new openness,” said Inner City Press publisher Matthew Lee, “there’s no reason it should be confined to the east side of Manhattan.”

Under the terms of the agreement, UHAB will rehab the buildings at a cost initially estimated at $4.9 million. Then, each resident will pay a onetime fee of $250 per apartment to a newly-formed tenant cooperative, which will own and run the buildings. Though most of the squatters are wary of taking on debt, the arrangement means they are finally free of the fear of being kicked out of their homes.

“The good thing about it is being stable,” said Wagner. “If I had to move out, I don’t know where I would go in this world.”

Read the full story, “Squatters’ Rites: Loisaida’s Last Outlaws Make Their Most Revolutionary Move Yet–Legal Occupation.” by City Limits contributing editor Robert Neuwirth.