Better Homes and Squatters

New York's Outlaw Homesteaders Earn the Right to Stay

Even when the city sealed off East 8th Street with 400 cops and began tearing down his squat in the middle of the night, Michael Shenker never backed down. Over the course of his 18 years battling to reclaim abandoned properties on the Lower East Side, Shenker figures he's been dragged away in cuffs at least half a dozen times. He helped stage boisterous protests that shut down community board meetings and holed up with the homeless in an old school on East 4th for six weeks in the dead of winter.

Back in 1989, Shenker found himself with a group of squatters who dumped piss on advancing police and city workers in a last-ditch effort to save their building.

Now this 46-year-old electrician is becoming a homeowner. Under a plan approved by the Bloomberg administration last week, Shenker and some 250 other occupants of 11 Lower East Side squats are in the process of converting their buildings into low-income co-ops.

City Hall might like to believe that the old radicals are gone, but many are still here. It's just that after weathering two decades of fires, court struggles, and assaults from police, the movement has adapted to the times. It has also matured. "The people who were getting arrested are having families," says Shenker, who's now an elected representative of the Lower East Side People's Homesteaders Coalition. "It's like we've come full circle. Gaining title to these buildings and proving to the city that we could create real, affordable housing at less than what the government spends to do it—that's what we set out to do in the first place."

That City Hall would approve such a plan marks a complete turnaround from its previously adamant stance of refusing to recognize people who take over abandoned city property. From 1989 to as late as April 1999, the city spent literally millions of dollars booting squatters—in 1995 Giuliani went so far as to send sharpshooters and a tank to 13th Street to wrest the folks who'd welded themselves inside four buildings, then kept a police presence on the block for more than a year.

"We never went down easy," Shenker says of the movement that once encompassed two dozen buildings on the Lower East Side. "Nothing was wasted, because we learned from our mistakes, and because the city realized they couldn't just take us out without a big political fight."

Under the agreement, hatched during Rudy Giuliani's last two years, the city agreed to sell the 11 squats for $1 each to the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, a local nonprofit that has a 29-year track record of helping tenants take over and manage buildings. UHAB will secure a loan to fund renovations to bring the squats up to code. Once construction is complete, the buildings revert back to the residents as limited equity co-ops, meaning they can't flip their units or sublease them for profit. And UHAB will monitor new residents to make sure they qualify as low income, with first dibs going to local people doubled up in the neighborhood.

The co-opers will then be responsible for managing their buildings and paying the maintenance and mortgage costs—projected at $300 to $750 a month for larger apartments. Far from simply getting the buildings for $1, the residents of these 11 tenements will have to pay off more than $5 million in rehab costs. They hope to keep the costs down by doing much of the labor themselves.

City officials like to cast the move as pragmatic.

"It made sense to give UHAB and these tenants an opportunity to rehabilitate the buildings, and as an opportunity to create decent, affordable housing," says Carol Abrams of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. "It's a win-win."

HPD also liked the fact that the homesteaders didn't request any city or state money to finance their renovations. Still, when pressed as to why the city would now recognize a movement it had so vehemently opposed, Abrams responds: "These 11 buildings have been occupied by families in a much quieter way. They've left us alone and we've left them alone. They're not the buildings where people were throwing things off the roof. This is a different population."

HPD's assessment is echoed by City Councilmember Margarita López, who helped get this project approved despite having clashed with squatters when they took over buildings slated for other projects. "I know many of the mommies now whose children were born in those buildings," says López. "Before, the majority of the people were single white individuals who came from outside the neighborhood. It was easy to identify them; they had Mohawks or whatever you call those things. They were in total rebellion with everybody and everything. They were a movement against the renovation of buildings, because the people then believed everything should be free and that nobody should ever pay rent.

In fact, quite a few of the folks living in these buildings were once young punks and wild-eyed idealists. But for every radical in the streets, there were always many more who shunned the spotlight, quietly working to carve out homes inside their rubble-strewn buildings.

By winning the right to stay, the Lower East Siders have also set a powerful example for other squatters around the city. HPD now says it is "interested in working with" Inner City Press Homesteaders, a grassroots group of mostly Latino families who occupy about a dozen city-owned buildings in the South Bronx and East Harlem. The city has been aware of the Inner City homesteads for over a decade but has refused to acknowledge them, despite the fact that the residents have installed boilers, plumbing, and legal electricity.

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