Better Homes and Squatters


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.

“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.

“We’ve been called Dumb Luck Central,” laughs Popeye, a/k/a Roland Llewellyn, a 51-year-old musician and 25-year veteran of the Lower East Side who serves as a dysfunctional father figure to the younger inhabitants, many of them artists and musicians who do construction and seasonal farm jobs. But even these legendary party animals have done serious work. At one point they installed steel lifts to jack up the center of their rotted-out building, then rehung the entire stairwell from the roof down. They also replaced all the joists, using beams they got from a construction site by offering the workers six-packs of beer.

“Kids with no family created family here,” says Popeye. “We rehabbed the building, and the building rehabbed us.”

C-Squat may fit the stereotype of young white kids with an attitude, but the population of the 250 people who live in the other 10 buildings are far more diverse. Half are people of color—Puerto Ricans, blacks, Colombians, Uruguayans, refugees from Rwanda, a few Asians, Haitians, Native Americans, an Iranian Jew. They’re poets and carpenters, youth counselors and social workers, photographers and piercing artists, even a court clerk and a woman who works in the accounting department at MTV. There are also seniors, people with AIDS, former shelter residents, and just plain misfits who could never afford anywhere else to live.

Over the years, squatters helped create many of the neighborhood’s community gardens, which began in essence as squats themselves. They helped start one of the city’s first recycling programs, set up food co-ops, and were among the local groups that established the Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union.

Their victory comes by virtue of their tenacity. These self-help homesteaders beat the odds, and now—ironically for a movement that was always accused of being outsiders and usurpers—have become part of the old guard, a last bastion of low-income community bohemia in a neighborhood of increasingly transient, upscale renters.

Some of the former squatters admit they’re having trouble adjusting. “It’s weird,” concedes Fly, a comic-book artist and illustrator who’s been squatting for 12 years. “You always thought you were going to go out in a blaze of glory with 900 cops on the street, being dragged out in chains. Now we’re staying, but it’s like we’re the freaks in the zoo or something. They kicked out a lot of other freaks, but it’s like the well-behaved freaks can stay on.”

And many aren’t sure how they’re going to come up with their monthly rents after living on the cheap for so long. “I’ll call this a victory when I see how the [mortgage] figures come in,” says Marshall.

Still, by rescuing these buildings from ruin, the squatters have become, in an odd way, preservationists—both of their buildings and some margin of the neighborhood’s eclectic roots. At Bullet Space, an artists’ squat at 292 East 3rd Street, the first-floor gallery recently featured an old plate-glass window screened with a 1884 census tract documenting the immigrant seamstresses, tailors, gas-lamp cleaners, and printers who lived there. Another window panel featured the history of Bullet—which was named for the brand of heroin sold on the street—as an “Act of Resistance.”

The rest of the show was devoted to texts, poems, and photos of the 9-11 disaster, many of them shot from the roof. In a diary excerpt, Bullet resident Maggie Wrigley paid tribute to the police and firemen who lost their lives. “For years,” she wrote, “we fought to keep them out of our squats. . . . Now they were our heroes.”

Her words speak to the evolution of this movement—from irreverent opponents of City Hall to its most unlikely allies.

Bullet co-founder Andrew Castrucci says he’s even considering changing the gallery’s name. “I feel like a wounded soldier. I can’t even celebrate because of all the shit that we went through,” says the 40-year-old painter, now married and a teacher at the School of Visual Arts. “If you’re here 10 years or more, it just becomes natural. You become part of the land, your apartment. It’s kind of a ridiculous argument, whether you’re legal or not, squatters or homesteaders. It’s what are you making, what are you doing, where’s your poem, what’s your artifact?”