Issue #75, May/June 1994
By Barry Bearak
A desperate need for decent housing and the American spirit of self-reliance embolden New York City squatters to take over and restore abandoned buildings.All's well until the bureaucracy notices.
Away from the majestic pinnacles of Manhattan, so much of this city is like the steerage compartment of an immigrant ship, neglected old buildings at the edge of ruin, 200,000 families living doubled or tripled up, working people paying half their income for a few feet of warmth and a foldaway bed.
The vacancy rates in New York's poorer neighborhoods hover around 1 percent. There is a 10-year wait for public housing. Shelters for homeless families are full beyond capacity. People sleep outside, swathed in blankets of newspaper and cardboard, their real estate the city's benches and portals and rooftops.
There is something baffling as well as sad about this housing shortage. Thousands of abandoned buildings honeycomb the Bronx, Brooklyn and Harlem a surplus teasing at all the want. Some of them are skeletonized and crumbling but others are recoverable with simple applications of piping and drywall.
Inevitably, there are those among the poor who ask: why can't we have these windy spaces for ourselves? With their own tools and money and sweat, they are ready to recast the hollows into livable housing. But they fail to understand the unbending rules of a complicated metropolis. Urban renewal, like the law, is nothing to be taken into your own hands.
Dominican immigrant Antonio Rodriguez is one of those failing to appreciate this. In a typical week, the cab driver earns $150. Of that, he pays $80 for a 7-by-12-foot room he shares with two sons and a daughter. Their sleeping area is a geometric puzzle of two beds and the bare floor beside a refrigerator.
Rodriguez, 49, keeps asking himself: "How can all these empty buildings just be sitting there in this of all cities, the capital of the world?"
So he was easy to recruit, joining a loosely-knit group called Inner City Press/Community on the Move. Its members scout among the vacant hulks, move in, start repairs. For the past five years, their unlawful colonies have vexed New York's mammoth Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the landlord of a vast, woeful empire of buildings seized for unpaid taxes.
HPD, of course, prefers to make its own plans for its own property. Four times now, the city has rooted out Inner City squatters, unhinging more than 100 families from their improvised homes. These mass evictions using the tactic of surprise are dreadful events, squads of police busting through doors, overwrought people coursing tears, possessions scattered and lost.
The displaced are perplexed by their expulsion, disbelieving that their hard labors go unappreciated. "We were working people, repairing a building little by little," said Amado Campbell. "What are we to do now?"
Indeed, what are the desperate to do? Sea to shining sea, poor Americans are hard put to find affordable housing. It is not simply a matter of who is homeless and who is not. For every homeless person, there are tenfold getting by only after agonizing choices: meat on the table or higher rent, crack-heads in the halls or higher rent, doubling up with relatives or higher rent.
"We have 5.2 million families [about one in 17 Americans] either paying more than 50% of their incomes for housing or living in substandard units..." said Michael A. Stegman, Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). "The building boom of the '80s never filtered down to the poor."
New York this great human ship taking on water is overwhelmed. Between 1988 and 1992, a total of 239,425 residents spent time in a homeless shelter. That is 3.3% of the population, and one in 20 of the city's children.
Officials here have not turned their backs. They boast that New York has directed $2 billion toward new housing in the past four years three times that of the nation's next 50 largest cities combined. But the demand for more low-income apartments seems insatiable, beyond the fathoming of planners.
Opening The Door
Antonio Rodriguez, six years in America and still stymied by English, knows nothing of city housing policies. He works hard, he pays rent. It was a friend who suggested he contact the Inner City group: "they open the lock and you can just go in." One sleety day, he visited the squatters at one of the already-occupied buildings and was saucer-eyed at the roominess inside. The apartments might well have cost $700 a month in the prevailing market.
Antonio then took a drive with an Inner City organizer, stopping at a South Bronx low-rise. On the red brick exterior were white-stenciled letters: property owned by City of New York. The squatters were thinking of taking over the building and already had replaced HPD's padlock with one of their own. Antonio ventured in, across a threshold of trash.
The place looked disemboweled, most of its walls and ceilings stripped to their structural bones. A haphazard mulch of wood and old clothes and scraps of paper filled the floors shin-high. Beneath a broken window was a moldy mattress, rotting away like a side of beef. Doors were wrenched off their hinges. The stairway had loose steps, and the banister was gone.
Antonio walked among each of the four apartments, the ending of one hard to tell from the start of another. The air was musty, and dust hung in every rod of light. Cold filled his mouth, a puff of steam escaping with each breath. He counted rooms and measured windows. Something was incomprehensible to him.
"This has just been sitting here abandoned?" he asked. "I can't believe it. Some of these walls don't even need sheetrock, just scraping maybe, a little compound over there. The garbage? It's nothing, just throw it out.
"This is a beautiful place, a room for my daughter, a room for my sons."
Squatters are not peculiar to New York. Every city has its share of urban guerrillas. In the 1970s, authorized "urban homesteading" was even in vogue the updated, citified variation of a great folk myth, courageous settlers overcoming the elements in a hostile slum. Homesteading still goes on in some cities, but the aim is mostly gentrification rather than low-income shelter. In Wilmington, Del., the first homesteader was a tax attorney with DuPont.
New York has had a homesteading program, too. Its premise was the standard one, allowing people to "buy" tumbledown housing with the "sweat equity" of their rejuvenating labors. But only designated buildings are eligible under the plan, and HPD has not added to its list since 1986. Homesteading is now seen here as a nobly-romantic but highly-inefficient housing strategy: Big buildings are not Tinkertoys®. Renovations require skilled labor, up to code.
Squatters cannot wait. Drug addicts are the most visible, commandeering/vacant lairs like soldiers on a house-to-house search. Then there are the "anarchist squatters" of the Lower East Side, many of them refugees from the middle class with noms de guerre and an acquired hatred of private property.
But these days, the working poor make up an increasing share. Inner City got its start in 1987 on the shoulders of Matthew Lee, a 23-year-old on fire with high ideals and anti-establishment politics, his mind sketching out conspiracy theories as easily as a child plays connect-the-dots. Lee, then unemployed, began publishing a newspaper with a donated mimeograph machine. Inside was a sampling of his poetry and information about the hows and whys of squatting.
A few dozen people responded, and the aspiring organizer was able to coax a handful to a meeting. They were Puerto Ricans and Hondurans and Dominicans, needy people neediest for the same thing: a decent place to live. They decided to look for a building of their own in the Bronx, a borough now teeming with Latino immigrants as it once overflowed with newcomers from Europe.
The place they chose was city-owned and had been empty for 8 years. Each of its 20 units had big bedrooms with dulled but intact parquet floors. The front windows faced the broad greenery of Crotona Park. Seventy years before, Leon Trotsky had lived a few blocks away, waiting for his revolution. Further east, Sholom Aleichem gave vent to life's bittersweet in his final Yiddish stories. The Crotona building needed a daunting amount of work, but people were eager. They packed tons of rubble into burlap potato sacks bought from a vegetable wholesaler. Discarded wood-frame windows were salvaged from construction sites. Small amounts of electricity were pirated by running wires to street lamps. Later, someone with the know-how shimmied down a manhole and connected the building to the main power line.
The labor was mostly done on weekends. People learned basic skills on the job. Vandals had raided the plumbing for its value as scrap metal, and new pipe had to be installed. Neighbors and passers-by often volunteered. In the winter, workers took turns around a wood-burning stove, rubbing their hands together as if washing them in the heat.
At first, the group had planned to fix up the building and then somehow get the city's OK before moving in. But construction went on for a year or so, and the waiting was hard. The six Alvarez sisters all with small children were living doubled-up, as many as 15 people in a two-bedroom flat. Anything with more space seemed better. Finally, the squatters went ahead and set up house.
The City Acts
All this time, HPD was watching. The city had more elaborate plans for the building, renovations of its own. In early 1989, someone from HPD dropped off a sheaf of eviction orders.
The squatters appealed to attorneys at Legal Aid for help. And, to their relief, they discovered how one law could be nimbly invoked to outmaneuver another: the eviction papers had never been properly posted at each door.
The victory was emboldening to a collection of immigrants. Months went by, and HPD still failed to get its paperwork in order. Then there was a long calm. Maybe the city had given up?
Word of the group spread, and the membership multiplied. On some Saturdays, more than 200 people showed up to work. The squatters decided to take over the abandoned building next door and then they added other big apartment houses nearby. By late Fall of 1990, Inner City was opening a building a week. "We were really cooking," Lee recalled with customary apostolic vigor. "It was true empowerment, people making their own decisions on every nail. We knew it was illegal, but so what? People were alive. People were taking risks.
"Maybe I get lost in my own hype, but the poor have so little available to them that practically anything they do is illegal. Be a street vendor, you're illegal. Haul trash with no license, you're illegal. Fix an apartment, you're illegal. The only way to be legal is to sit in a shelter and give up."
But the momentum soon burned away. In December, 1990, a fire broke out at the first Crotona site. Matthew Lee habitually suspicious thought HPD might have set it. Inspectors were certainly Johnny-on-the-spot with a vacate order, and not just for the damaged building, but also the group's site next door.
No legal technicalities stopped the city this time. Some 200 police officers in riot gear marched four abreast toward the buildings. A crowd quickly formed, including anarchist supporters, chanting, "No homes, no peace." About 20 Inner City squatters were holding out inside. They wanted to make a stand, but were amateurs at impromptu defiance. They blocked a door with a refrigerator only to be surprised by cops who came up the fire escape.
On Christmas Eve, a second blaze lit up one of the group's buildings and left this one a ruin. Five weeks after that, police forcibly removed the squatters at yet another of the sites. All told, the people living in 85 units had now lost their jerrybuilt homes.
Inner City's faithful were no longer so spirited. The squatters were becoming sullen and desperate and angry. And the turnouts on Saturday began to fall away.
No Right To Housing
America's social contract has important omissions, such as: If you want to work, you can. And if you do work, you can live in at least somewhat-dignified circumstances. As things go now, the working poor often do not have much of a deal. They earn too much to collect welfare, but not enough to pay the bills.
Society may revere the notion of home and hearth, but housing itself is just another ware for purchase and sale, a commodity rather than a right.
There are federal funds aimed at housing support; HUD's annual budget, for example, is $25 billion. But the nation's largest housing subsidy is the one written into its tax code, allowing deductions for mortgage interest on first and second homes. This deprives the U.S. treasury of $46 billion a year, according to the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation. The biggest tax breaks naturally accrue to those with the biggest mortgages, the wealthy.
Housing aid for the poor is not the enshrined policy of homeowner deductions. During the 1980s, the federal construction of low-income units was allowed to slide toward a halt. This blow was softened to a degree by the introduction of new tax credits, encouraging others to do the financing. The use of rent vouchers also expanded, though in cities with housing crises, these were often of no more value than gift certificates to an empty store.
Presently, with the poverty rate up and the supply of low-cost units down, housing assistance is received by only a third of the 13 million low-income households eligible. The Clinton Administration has yet to struggle with this math. "The budget environment is very, very difficult," said Stegman of HUD.
The Inner City squatters are mostly working people. They hold factory or restaurant jobs, where the pay is less than $200 a week. Or they work construction, where the salaries are higher but the labor is only off-and-on.
HPD officials have never had a good fix on who their adversaries are. They speculate that most in the group are illegal immigrants, though that is not so. They also consider the squatters to be "innocent dupes" of Matthew Lee. "He leads them to believe that the city will eventually let them keep their apartment," said Peter Cantillo, an HPD assistant commissioner.
Actually, such statements are patronizing. The squatters are well-aware of what they are getting into and how it might end. If some cleave to illusions, it is borne from a naive sense of social justice. Many keep their receipts for building materials. "That way, if the city throws me out, they can reimburse me for every penny I've spent," said Pablo Pichardo, a father of three.
After the first fires and evictions, Inner City slowly began rebuilding strength and attracting new people. For most, squatting was simply a practical choice measured against what their rent was buying. Was it better to be a squatter in a building with no boiler or a renter in a place with no privacy?
Hilda Cruz had been paying $50 a week for a small room she shared with two other women. Ernesto Gallard, his wife and three children lived in the back of a bodega, sleeping on floor mats and using the alley for a bathroom.
Squatting, of course, involves hardships, especially when a building is newly taken and the cold still comes and goes as it pleases. People are bundled up in blankets like papooses. There is no running water; bucketfuls are commonly toted up from fire hydrants and stored in 50-gallon drums.
"If you want a place of your own, you have to fight for it," said Paulina Gomez, a young restaurant worker with a child. "My mother is very poor, and I don't send her any money because it all goes toward buying materials. "
Inner City appeals to a determined few. A sizable number drop out for one reason or another; also, slackers who fail to work on their apartments are sometimes ousted by others in a building. That way, those who stay are united by a sense of shared sacrifice.
Trying Hard to Do the Right Thing
HPD is one of those god awful bureaucratic apparatuses set up for impossible and thankless tasks. It is also among America's biggest slumlords, the manager of a burdensome portfolio of about 5,600 troubled buildings, including 3,500 with tenants. This amounts to 50,000 units, or enough to house the entire population of Stockton or Hartford, Conn. or Little Rock, Ark.
Fifteen years ago, HPD's inventory was twice as large as now. By then, low-income housing already had become a big money loser in New York. Operating costs for decrepit, pre-World War II buildings were soaring while city laws forbade a corresponding rise in rents. Landlords were simply walking away from their headaches or collecting the insurance from a timely act of arson. The South Bronx, a vast necropolis of brick tenements, had become a world-famous slum.
In most cities, property seized for back taxes is auctioned off, but that has been impractical here. The buildings are often precious only to those who live there. To save a diminishing resource, the city has felt compelled to enter the housing business.
HPD's management of the property, while flawed and costly, has nonetheless preserved tens of thousands of badly-needed apartments. The city is a terrible landlord forever behind in repairs but it has been able to divest itself of many of the buildings by partly subsidizing their sale and rehabilitation. Buyers have been tenants, community groups and private developers. No longer is the South Bronx a vast, eerie moonscape. In it are new blooms of brick.
That is why the Inner City group was such an annoyance. By 1991, HPD had devised plans for each of its larger abandoned buildings. Every deal was a knot of arrangements, this-and-that financing with hither-and-yon approvals. Such orderly proceedings left no room for squatters and their urgencies.
HPD standard-issue damnations of the group, however, most often dealt with other concerns. The squatters were "jumping the line" ahead of their brethren poor, who were patiently waiting in shelters for city housing. They were also a hazard to themselves and their neighbors, cooking with illegal kerosene stoves and stringing electrical wires from building to building like so much clothesline. The city could not wink at such things.
But the squatters proved easier to lambaste than remove. HPD did not have the resources to patrol its abandoned buildings. Squatters would have to be tolerated until the very day that HPD or a new owner was ready to begin construction. Then the police could be enlisted to throw the interlopers out.
Even then, many at HPD flinched. Ousting poor families was surely no beauty treatment for the self-image. Some agency higher-ups had themselves started out as community activists and once considered squatting the tactic of heroes. Of course, that was 20 years ago, before things had become so coat-and-tie.
Nowadays, even many of the most renegade of neighborhood groups have gotten into the game with the moguls. They are incorporated, with foundation grants from Rockefeller and Ford and multi-million dollar government contracts as social service providers. HPD is their partner in developing real estate.
In fact, some of the agency's more conciliatory bosses felt it best if the squatters underwent a similar transformation. Why not polish up the group and let it become another of HPD's not-for-profit housing partners?
The Squatters and City Hall Meet
In March of 1992, Matthew Lee and 12 representative squatters agreed to come downtown to talk. The meeting was held around a large handsome conference table, the varnish so bright it was like a wood-grained looking glass. After the years of antagonism, there was an awkwardness in the air: so here were those stubborn squatters, so there were those heartless bureaucrats.
Felice Michetti, then the HPD commissioner, was not among those kindly disposed toward the group. She was firm as a school marm, delivering a civics lesson: Squatting was against the law. It would never be tolerated.
One of the squatters, Enrique Deoleo, deeply resented the commissioner's lecture. Though well into his seventh decade, he was still tough as a pit bull. He had been the first to live in the group's largest building, using a flashlight and machete to skirmish with the rats.
He rose to speak, imparting his own discourse on civics. "Our buildings may belong to the city, but the city is the property of the people and we are the people," he observed. "The city has two vehicles, a limousine for the rich to ride in and a tractor to dig a hole and push the poor inside to bury them."
Among city housing groups, the Inner City squatters are mostly known as hard-working and sincere, though even sympathizers have qualms. "As a way of allocating scarce resources, allowing the takeover of buildings is not much of a program," said Andrew Reicher, one housing advocate. "Homesteading, to be fair, has to have a selection process. Otherwise, it would just be a land rush."
Another advocate, Harry DiRienzo, mediated between the squatters and the city. It was frustrating work. As a sign of good faith, the city had requested a list of all the the group's sites. As a sign of their distrust, the squatters had refused. Discussions then died out. "When there's an impasse like that, someone has to take a risk and that should be the party with the least to lose, which I'd have to suggest was the city," DiRienzo said.
Inner City's two biggest sites were actually well-known to HPD. They were those facing buildings at 670 and 675 E. 170th St. in the Bronx. Large yellow signs at the front entrances proclaimed the squatters' presence. The group had occupied the 37 units for four years, but now HPD wanted to bring in a private developer for a total rehabilitation. To ease the way, the city would nourish the project with $4 million in grants and low-interest loans.
By July of last year, everything was set to go, except the squatters. Most of them ignored the flyers left by the city, offering help in relocation. The handouts made no mention of a vacate order or a deadline for clearing out. With mass evictions so messy, the police prefer the element of surprise.
On the morning of July 8, the heat was awful, burning toward 100. The cops rolled up in vans and buses, accompanied by some of the HPD brass. The street was quickly sealed off. In moments, everything was motion. The police were on the stairs, the roofs, in the halls. Batons banged on locked doors.
The squatters were ordered to grab what they could and get out. Maria Mata, age 61, was caught in her underwear, preparing to take a bath. Suddenly, the police were pacing around her, clapping hands, shouting, "Let's go, let's go!"
All around, disbelief vied with commotion. There were sharp volleys of cursing and pleas. City workers were carrying furniture to trucks or dropping it in dumpsters. Demolition crews broke windows and tore down walls.
Peter Cantillo was there for HPD. "It was a terrible thing to watch," he said. "The idea is to make the squatters feel the immediate need to leave. Few questions are answered. I don't have to tell you how many things they want to take with them, but once they get their personal belongings, that's it.
"The police have very little tolerance for people going back in for more. After all, what will they need at a shelter? The furniture is supplied."
When the eviction began, that rugged old-timer Enrique Deoleo had been laying cement in the courtyard. "Do you have any papers from the court?" he demanded of the police as they rushed by. Someone from HPD promised that he'd be cared for in a shelter. "That's no different than a jail," he said.
No one paid any mind when Deoleo climbed the six flights of stairs, going past the cops stationed on the roof. In a few seconds, he was at the ledge.
"What's going on?" a policeman finally yelled, moving towards him.
"Stay away," Deoleo hollered back.
A hundred eyes squinted up from the street. Against an azure summer sky, the squatter looked like some possessed and bereft peasant farmer. A news photographer was snapping away. Please don't jump, thought Cantillo of HPD. He would later quip that he could see his entire career flash before his face.
The cop on the roof kept coming. "What do you want?" he asked.
"You're all a bunch of liars," Deoleo answered.
The squatter then turned his back. He mumbled a few prayers, made the sign of the cross and opened his arms to eternity. He lunged, the cop lunged.
The officer managed to grab Deoleo just as he pushed off. He yanked him back in and wrestled him down and handcuffed him.
Then the wiggy old guy was charged with disorderly conduct.
New Strategies In An Ongoing Struggle
In recent months, the Inner City group has changed strategy. Squatters are now settling into smaller buildings, ones with 10 units or less. They think HPD is less likely to bother with them now. The group has about 18 in all.
On most Saturdays, the organizers drive the streets and creep around the brick corpses. By now, they are connoisseurs of abandonment, picking out the better buildings the way an expert chef might select fresh fish on the dock.
There is another change, too. Squatters at some sites have finally gotten Con Ed to sell them electricity, which was not easy. With no certificates of occupancy, the group had been like a provisional government without diplomatic recognition. They were ineligible for service.
One of the new, smaller sites is a four-story walk-up in East Harlem. It is a relief to have lights now, but there is still no running water. Some of the men tried to dig a hole from the basement to the outdoor main, but it was a screwball idea and they became afraid the street would collapse on them.
The building's occupants are a gritty, if star-crossed bunch. Maria Garcia de Santos, 26, works in a factory, putting metal studs into dog leashes. The salary is $175 a week. A few months back, her husband Andres joined her in America. He has no paying job yet, though he does stock shelves for free at a nearby supermarket. "When they do hire someone, it will be me," he said.
Maria is reed thin, sharply featured, newly pregnant. She grew up in the Dominican countryside, and New York is a colossus to her. "I was ashamed to live in an abandoned building," she said. "The rats would smash into the front door so hard, I thought it was a person and I would get up to answer."
In the evenings, she and Andres used to sit around a candle, their shadows flitting in the scars of dim light. "I have a right to this place now," she said. "Some people want everything easy. They won't come into a place full of garbage. They wouldn't do things step by step, a window now, a door later."
The man downstairs, Dario Solano, was determined that their building have a proper mailbox inside the front entrance. He studied the postal regulations, installed and reinstalled, waited for the mail carrier to come up the street.
"Who lives here?" the postman asked. "Bums?"
Dario was proud to explain otherwise, and he had the words ready in English.
"No," he said. "It is the residents who live here."
Barry Bearak is a journalist based in New York City. This article is a shorter version of one that originally appeared in the February 27, 1994, L.A. Times. Used with permission. Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to the reporting of this story. All photographs in this article are by Joe Tabacca.