Better Homes and Squatters

New York's Outlaw Homesteaders Earn the Right to Stay

"It's like we've been living in a state of cold war, and now that seems to be coming to an end," says Inner City Press founder Matthew Lee. "For years, we were always running into that ideological wall. The city said they would never legalize squatted buildings because they didn't want to encourage other people to do the same thing."

HPD insists it's not opening up the floodgates to a new wave of squatter takeovers. "We're dealing with this on a case-by-case basis," says HPD's Abrams. "Sure, it may be precedent-setting in the case of Inner City Press, but there's really nothing much in the way of squatter buildings beyond that."

But over the last 10 years, the Inner City homesteaders have also ventured into several privately owned buildings that were abandoned by their landlords yet never foreclosed on by the city. "These are buildings where the owners haven't paid taxes for up to 14 years," says Lee. "People in the neighborhood prefer to see them maintained rather than sitting open to drug dealers. That's why we put up signs that say, 'Nuisance Abatement Project.' "

Critics have been quick to attack the city for handing property to "thieves" and "freeloaders"—"urban parasites," railed the Post. What's being overlooked is the legacy of homesteading in New York City, especially on the Lower East Side.

Councilmember López homesteaded her building on East 11th. So did members of the local community board, including some who would become the squatters' most vocal critics. Many of these early homesteads were eligible for low-interest loans and government grants of up to $10,000 per unit. The difference is, these people enrolled in a city-run program back when

the Big Apple was still festering with foreclosed properties, before real estate values jumped through the roof. The city stopped taking applicants in 1986.

Among the 11 buildings included in the August deal are two on East 7th that were abandoned by a landlord in the late '70s but were never fully vacant. "We didn't have the luxury of living somewhere else and working on the weekends like other [legal] homesteaders," says Ellen Kessler, 54, who lives at 278 East 7th with her son. Another, on Second Avenue, was taken over by subtenants after the nonprofit that ran the building went bust.

The nine other buildings were occupied without city sanction, a stance that put them at odds with more established housing groups, which were in many instances competing for the same empty buildings. UHAB's own director, Andrew Reicher, came out against squatters in 1992, stating, "You can't just give property to those who take it."

They were labeled Eurotrash and revolutionaries from the burbs, but many of the squatters were people from the community. "I've been in this neighborhood forever," says Maxi Marshall, who grew up in the projects on Avenue D. "I knew this was going on and I wanted to be one of them, because this crew of people were about homesteading, not squatting," he says of his fellow residents at 209 East 7th.

That building was founded in 1985 by members of the Nicaragua Construction Brigade, who divided their time between building schools and houses in war-torn Central America and renovating bombed-out buildings in the city. They were quiet doers like Dan Yafet, a 46-year-old carpenter, draftsman, and "recidivist" Peace Corps volunteer.

There were years when Yafet would travel abroad, never sure if he'd have a place to come home to. "We'd been under so many threats—fires, crazy people in the building, other squats being thrown out," he says. "But when I got back, there was a much more solid group of people here. We worked hard, and the city can't ignore that forever."

After a fire swept the building in 1990, Yafet and others replaced over 200 joists and rebuilt the whole roof. His hard work shows in the neatly Sheetrocked fourth-floor apartment he now shares with his wife, Sophie, whom he met on a Peace Corps mission in Madagascar, and their two cherubic children, Andry, three, and Aaron, 11 months.

"If anyone thinks this is living for free, they're kidding themselves," says April Merlin, a former waitress from Queens who moved into a burned-out shell across the hall from Yafet 12 years ago. "This is hard work, this is stressful. You gotta love this—the building is your leisure project. It's your life."

The 32-year-old Merlin shares her loft-like apartment with her husband, Baldomero, a line cook from Mexico, and their two children, Ricardo, four, and Cira, nine months. These days it could pass for a middle-class co-op, with its sanded wood floors, white textured walls, and heavy oak furniture. Most of the materials were donated or salvaged, including the old lathe that Merlin used to create an elegant archway over her bed. She even did her own plumbing and electric, after being schooled by more skilled members of the building.

Still, no one ever thought the city would ever contemplate giving a deed to "C-Squat," a kind of punk-rock embassy at 155 Avenue C. A haven for former street kids and travelers, C-Squat's hallways are layered with irreverent graffiti, and a skateboard ramp in the basement doubles as a stage for punk shows.

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