N.Y. squatters move on to state of ownership

NEW YORK — The early history of real estate is filled with people planting flags or raising swords, moving in and proclaiming ownership.

But many New Yorkers were surprised this summer when, under a controversial new city policy, squatters took legal possession of several buildings in the high-rent Manhattan neighborhood where they had been living illegally for years.

In August, the city sold 11 buildings on the Lower East Side for $1 each to a nonprofit agency, which will hand them over to the 236 squatters who live in them.

"Responsibility — that's what it feels like," said Baby Monroe, a subway musician who has lived in a dilapidated building at 155 Avenue C for several years.

Monroe and others are happy to remain in the neighborhood. They believe they would have been evicted without this deal.

Others think they've pulled off a big con in a neighborhood where rents can run $2,000 a month.

"These are folks who just take whatever they want and don't give back," wrote Queens resident Sonora Chase in one of several angry letters to local papers. "I will work and follow the law for another 20 years to acquire what they have snagged illegally for $1 per building."

City has its reasons

Carol Abrams of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development said the arrangement was made possible because the city does not want to displace people while creating code-compliant housing. Also, the city would rather the squatters inherited their seized homes than be shown the door in a time of rising homelessness in New York City.

"This was a last resort," Abrams said. "But it's still a win-win. We can get 11 buildings up to code while creating affordable, low- to moderate-income housing."

The deal isn't costing the city a dime. The Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, which arranged the ownership transfer, is negotiating capital-improvement loans ranging from $200,000 to $600,000 per building so that the buildings can be brought into compliance with city housing codes.

The loans will then be passed on to the one-time squatters, who will become owners of the cooperative housing. This also means the residents of each apartment will pay around $450 a month. For many, it will be the first time they have paid rent in years, though some have poured thousands of hours and dollars into making needed building repairs, such as pouring concrete staircases and patching floors and roofs.

Change in policy

A lot has changed in the past seven years. In July 1995, the city sent police in riot gear and an armored personnel carrier to the Lower East Side to execute eviction orders for many of the buildings where squatters lived.

After a siege and several arrests, the squatters countered in court that their presence was lawful. They argued they owned the abandoned buildings under the legal doctrine of adverse possession, having openly occupied them for more than 10 years.

Largely agreeing, a Manhattan judge barred the city from kicking many of the squatters out.

One of the buildings whose occupants were targeted for eviction was 21-23 Avenue C, called Umbrella House by its squatting founders because of a roof leak that was once so bad they needed an umbrella indoors.

"I didn't feel like working 10 paying jobs to live in the neighborhood I love," said Linda Flores De Leon, 43, who has lived in the building on-and-off since 1989, with her now 12-year-old daughter.

De Leon, whose salary as a social worker would not pay typical rents in the area, wants to keep her daughter in the local public elementary school, a magnet school with an arts emphasis.

In just the past few years the neighborhood went from an open-air drug market to a place where young bond traders and New York University students sip $5 lattes.

De Leon says that because she and other family-oriented people believed in the neighborhood when everyone else was staying away, she has earned her apartment ownership.

Another resident of Umbrella House, Tauno Bilsted, 31, has spent the past 10 years doing electrical and plumbing work on the building. "I did not have the income to pay rent," he said.

Now, Umbrella House keeps a "sweat equity" log. Those who don't contribute to the renovation are evicted by group vote, though it is not a legally enforceable eviction.

Real estate thrives

The conditions that led to New York City's squatter culture — which provided the inspiration and the setting for Jonathan Larsen's hit Broadway musical "Rent" — are not likely to reappear any time soon.

In the city's depressed real-estate and economic climate of the 1970s and 1980s, many owners abandoned their buildings because it was cheaper than paying the taxes on them.

In 1987, there were 5,662 vacant buildings in the city. But in today's healthy real-estate market, there are only 524.

By the late 1990s, the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani started to be receptive to a longstanding offer from the 30-year-old Urban Homesteading Assistance Board to turn over the buildings to the squatters. But it was the current administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council that approved the deal.

If old squatters want to move, they are not allowed to sell their apartments for more than $9,000 for three years, with small increases after that. That way each building remains a low-income-housing cooperative.

Colorful neighborhood

The transition of the squatters to homeowners is a new chapter in the old story of a particular brand of Lower East Side bohemianism.

In the 1970s and '80s, radicals living in squats, closet-sized studios or tents in Tompkins Square Park defined themselves by their rejection of the "system."

Artists put up extravagant gargoyles on the buildings to scare away developers, and others squatted as a political statement, giving the community a stamp of personality recognized far beyond the city limits.

This deal preserves some of that spirit, said Joe Center, associate director of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board.

"The Lower East Side has always been a place where people have moved to when coming to New York — Jews, Irish, Italians, Puerto Ricans and now the young of all races and religions," said Center, whose own grandparents settled there.

"That's a tradition worth preserving."