Ours to Lose: When Squatters Became Homeowners in New York City

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New York City in the 1980s and ‘90s was home to a squatting movement unlike any other in the United States. Drawing on their diverse radical and progressive roots, squatters claimed and occupied city-owned abandoned building with a winning combination: a Yippie sense of drama and fun, punk rock aggression and subcultural grit, and urban homesteaders’ earnest appeals to American values of self-sufficiency and initiative. When faced with eviction they learned how to build barricades and booby traps and drum up riots from their European counterparts, and each attempt to evict Lower East Side squatters from the late ‘80s on brought newly escalated police and squatter tactics.  By the mid-1990s, the police were using tanks and helicopters and the squatters were burning cars in the streets.

In 2002, after three years of secret negotiations, the city shocked everyone involved when it agreed to sell the remaining squatted buildings, for one dollar each, to a non-profit (UHAB – the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board) which would take out loans on the squatters’ behalf to renovate the buildings and bring them up to code. The former squats would then be converted to limited-equity low-income co-operatives and the renovation loans would become mortgages. Illegal squatters would thus be transformed into indebted homeowners, problematic unsellable buildings into low-income housing. This was easier said than done: by 2013, only five of the eleven buildings in the legalization deal had been converted into co-ops.

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This excerpt marks a turning point in Ours to Lose: When Squatters Became Homeowners in New York City, a shift from a historical account of life in a row of squats on East 13th Street and that group’s struggle to claim their buildings using moral appeals based on deservingness and work and then adverse possession law to a more contemporary story of the legalization process post-2002. In the opening oral histories, you will see squatters articulating their explanations for why the city, after decades of fighting and vilifying squatters, finally agreed to make a deal to legalize their occupations. The fact that the mayor at the time, Rudy Giuliani, had been one of the squatters’ most vocal critics, made it even more confounding. Squatters fought hard to keep the buildings on East 13th Street, and even though they lost them the expense and embarrassment to the city may have encouraged city officials to find another way to get rid of the squatters: turn them into homeowners. The chapter this excerpt introduces describes the long, messy, complicated process of negotiating a deal to perform this alchemy.

Bios

Tauno Biltsted, b. 1970 in Copenhagen, Denmark, was raised by a Danish father and a Turkish Canadian mother, and grew up in a hippie neighborhood in Vancouver. His father was an architect, but the family sometimes struggled to make ends meet. When Biltsted was thirteen, his family returned to Copenhagen in search of work. As a teenager, he was into punk rock music and culture, and while in Copenhagen he was involved with the squatting scene there. He returned to the “chaotic and lovely” world of the Lower East Side when he was fifteen years old and got involved with squatting there through the homeless encampment at Tompkins Square Park. In 1989 he moved into C-Squat, and in 1992 he was voted into Umbrella House. Biltsted was deeply and consistently involved in the legalization process. Today he works with homeless youth and owns an apartment in Umbrella House.

Jessica Hall, b. 1966, grew up in rural Maine, the child of back-to-the-landers. She dropped out of NYU and was living on Avenue A, an activist and stay-at-home mom of two about to be evicted when a friend told her about 209 East Seventh Street, where she now owns an apartment. Her husband was Puerto Rican and a carpenter, so they were attractive candidates—a family from the neighborhood, and skilled—but when the process to be accepted as building members dragged out, they just clipped the lock and moved in. When she and her husband split up, she kept the apartment, finished college, and became a social worker. She was the secretary for 209 for a long time and worked closely with UHAB during the legalization process.

Marina Metalios, b. ca. 1967, is Greek American, an “army brat” who grew up around the United States, in Greece, and in the Middle East but always felt like a New Yorker. After graduating from Barnard College, she worked for the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Family Rights Project, then got an MA in public administration and came to work at UHAB in 1994. Metalios worked on converting city-owned rental buildings into low-income co-ops until the deal with the squatters temporarily took over her professional life in 1999.

Brett Pants, b. 1972 in Canarsie, Brooklyn, was raised by a single mom who worked as a secretary and then became a nurse. Sometimes they used food stamps. Bored and picked on, he barely graduated from high school. When he was a teenager, Brett left home and traveled and squatted in various places, but always ended up coming back to New York. His rest “space” in C-Squat in the early 1990s was just a cot placed over rafters on the fifth floor, but eventually, after moving around and watching others’ spaces, he got a room of his own in the building. He is now one of C-Squat’s longest-term residents. At the time of our interview, he was employed as a maintenance worker at TriBeCa Grill, traveled often to C-Squat’s other hub in rural Tennessee, and played in the punk band Dog That Bites Everyone. In 2015 he became a father and no longer lives full-time at C-Squat.

Eric Rassi, b. 1952, grew up lower-middle-class in Cleveland, went to college for a few years, and spent the 1970s traveling around the country before settling in New York City in 1980. By 1988 he could not afford the rising cost of rent in the city. A dishwasher at the restaurant where he worked suggested he move into a squat on the Lower East Side. He moved around in the squats before settling in at 377 East Tenth Street. Rassi does construction work and is involved in Left politics of all kinds. His building has not taken out any loans and is not yet being renovated, even though its residents are part of the deal with UHAB.

From Chapter Three, “Making the Deal: Debating the Values of Housing”

Tauno Biltsted: I think that Thirteenth Street was the end—the difficulty of evicting Thirteenth Street was what saved the rest of  the buildings. The city tried to evict those buildings, and I think if they had succeeded, that they would have gone on to evict the rest of the buildings. We barricaded the street; people barricaded themselves in the buildings. It was very dramatic. At the moment, I think it was a debacle. It was very expensive for the city in terms of a legal process. And it seemed like they ran out of steam.

Giuliani had a stated desire, a clear policy on the part of the city, to privatize all city-owned buildings and city-owned lots. My understanding was, at the time, there was a mandate that there was no city-owned property in the form of residential buildings, lots, et cetera, by the end of   the Giuliani term.

People approached UHAB in maybe 2000. Or late 1999. It was the end of the Giuliani administration. A few people approached some people at UHAB to see if they would assist in negotiating with the city in the process of  legalizing the buildings. And this time they felt it was ready. We’d been here long enough and all that stuff. And there was initial contacts made with the city where they were, like, “OK, let’s do it. Let’s make a deal.” This is one way to get the buildings off the city’s books was, like, “OK, you guys take them. We achieved our goal on the part of the city to get things out of city ownership.” I think it was agreed to under the Giuliani administration, which is a huge flip. And I think it’s mostly because of  Thirteenth Street.

Jessica Hall: I think Michael [Shenker] came and knocked on my door. He and Rolando [Politi] had been asking for some years for help with this [legalization] or some type of representation. I don’t remember how or why it happened that we said, “OK, we’re ready to do this.” I think mainly because the city was divesting [itself] of properties it didn’t want to be owners of anymore. They were trying to get rid of  whatever they could get rid of, and I don’t think it made sense to them with gentrification in the neighborhood to have a big scene and the cops and the tank. And there were a lot of families by that time, which was why we were able to get Councilwoman [Margarita] Lopez behind us. Also a lot of people in these buildings supported her in her campaign.

We were all so excited; we were jumping up and down. We were delighted. It was a long process, and one of the biggest things we had to do is we had to keep it a secret among several hundred people for a couple of years. That was pretty good. We were living in a state of insecurity, and we were going to be able to keep our homes, I think we were all happy about that. I could be wrong. Did you talk to some people that were pissed off?

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Amy Starecheski: At the very beginning? I don’t know. You said at the very beginning everyone was excited. Did that change going forward?

Hall: It did because the process went on for a long time. Over time a lot of resentment built up toward UHAB. People thought they were mismanaging, and I think we are so used to being in an adversarial mode with any institution that that  just kind of  transferred irrationally onto UHAB. Things weren’t perfect, but people would say things like “Oh, you’re in bed with UHAB” or crazy shit like that to me. And I’m like, “No, I’m actually going there and I’m negotiating and I’m working with them, and it’s a cooperative process and what do you think they’re getting out of this?” But so I think we’d become so insular that we weren’t so great at that negotiating process, and people that were negotiating seemed to be perceived as some type of traitor or then they were held in some type of suspicion like, “Oh, you’re sleeping with the enemy.”

Starecheski: As you were doing this negotiation process with UHAB, what were the points where you were able to actually negotiate with them?

Hall: There was a lot of  debate around resale, and I think we never really got to a good formula. I don’t really know why we couldn’t make a better formula. Because the way it turned out— and I understand people’s beef with this, but at some point in negotiation, you come to a point both parties can live with— the way it turned out was a person with a much higher— I don’t have any income right now, but someone with a much higher income can buy my apartment and still be within the parameters and benefit hugely from the sale. My argument was always to have it be low-income. But the problem was matching that with a resale that would be fair, that was the crux. And we worked on that, I don’t know maybe for years— it felt like it. And we argued passionately about it, and that was really intense.

Because there really is no graceful way to translate anarchy into some form of social capitalism. That’s two completely different models. So it was never— it was going to hurt. It was going to hurt. But here I am. I’m fucking delighted, you know? I have my home; I mean, for me personally— I’m the only adult child in my family that owns my own home, which is pretty significant. I have housing security, which most Americans don’t have. The affordability has enabled me to be a stay-at-home mom that I wanted to be and then to go back to school and pursue my education and to live as close to the values as possible. It’s just been an amazing thing in my life; I’m the luckiest person in the world— I’m really happy.

Starecheski: As you started to interact with the squatters over the negotiation process, what were your impressions of them?

Marina Metalios: They made my pupils dilate! They were so wow- wow.I had never encountered something like this. So in addition to being— to say impressed is just so neutral. In addition to being blown away at how amazing their work was and how they had figured out how to be unified—generally unified from building to building to building over time and had what was democratic or extremely democratic processes in their buildings. I was impressed by their matching up a need and a resource and drawing the hypotenuse. It didn’t really matter to them that there were ownership obstacles and lack of electricity and no stairs. C-Squat had no stairs and no roof. No stairs and no roof! Can you imagine! And they took over the building; it was unbelievable!! Unbelievable! It was great. Plus, in some cases people were raising families in no running water and then no safely potable water and no flush toilets. Both spoke volumes to me about the level of their need and also how gross the affordable-housing crisis was in New York City. I was very impressed by them. I was very impressed, and while I was— I don’t know— a little bit shocked by the idea of taking over buildings illegally, I embraced their reasons for it.

Starecheski: When you were living here, what did you think the end game would be?

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Brett Pants: I thought we’d be evicted. I never thought we would last this long. I never thought they’d give us the building. I never thought they’d sell it to us. I thought they’d evict us and I’d have to move out. I’d have to go live somewhere else. Move down south somewhere or maybe squat some other city. Or move south and buy land and a house, property, and have kids or something. But it never happened.

I was, like, they’re giving us the building? That’s crazy. Why would they give a bunch of dumbasses like us this building? It’s worth so much money. But they said, “Fine. A dollar is fine.” It’s cost so much more to work on that building. Not even monetarily.

I wasn’t for it. I thought it was a joke, from the beginning. And it’s always been problems the whole way through. It still has problems. I know other buildings have problems. I know when we finally convert, we’ll have problems. Because you try to tell people who’ve never had to pay for anything, “Pay for things.” Even though we had to pay for things, it was, like, it’s different now. To try to put everybody into reality. We had our own reality.

Starecheski: Do you feel like you could have stopped the process, if you wanted to stop it?

Pants: I think it’s snowballed. I think it was going to happen no matter what we did. We had to do it. I don’t think there was a yes or a no. We could have said no, then we would have gotten evicted. It would have been over. We’d have to fight the cops, and the cops would have taken the building. It would be a co-op or a condo or whatever it is they do now. It wouldn’t be the same as it is now. It would be another building on the Lower East Side.

Starecheski: Do you think there’s any risk that C-Squat as a building will lose its building through this whole process? That you’ll get foreclosed on, or do you think it’s pretty clear that you’ll be able to survive?

Pants: There’s always a risk. We could lose the building. If  we don’t pay, we’ll lose the building. And the bank doesn’t care who has it. They’ll sell it off to someone else, and they can sell it, and they’ll turn it into whatever they want to turn it into. They’ll have to spend a lot of money to do it, but they’ll do it. Because the bank, they don’t want to deal with this anymore. There’s no feeling in it for them. It’s about money. It’s not about people.

Eric Rassi: I guess that would have been 1995 or 1996 they took out three buildings on Thirteenth Street. That was a big fight too, but they did manage to grab— those were the last ones they were able to get away from us. So after that we were  just trying to figure out how to get legal title to the building. Some people didn’t really care about that; they figured, “Well, if they come, we’ll  just move somewhere else.” I always wanted to put this into a system that liberated the property from the landlord-tenant system. At the time I thought that this would become free property. It couldn’t be bought or sold; it could only be housing for people. That’s the idea we had at the time. To make this part of  a land trust. And all of  these properties would be liberated from the usual real estate system.

Actually, that’s how it’s going to wind up. With a slight adjustment— now we want a cash value to be put on the apartment so that if we ever have to leave, there’s a certain amount of equity that we hold in the property. It was Michael [Shenker] who actually introduced that idea, single-handedly. At the time UHAB took over— the agency that runs these buildings right now, runs them into the ground— if you left your apartment, you could get like nine thousand dollars. Say you were here for like thirty years and you have to go to some wherever to retire, your apartment will be turned over to somebody else that they will pick and you’ll get like nine thousand dollars. That’d be nice, because in about three weeks that nine thousand dollars is going to be gone [laughs]. Michael said, “No, people need to have some kind of cash equity.” The actual real value, this was my way of putting it— the real value of the apartment should be reflected in a cash value. The just price. That was my conversation with him.

He said, “Let’s just try to get whatever the market will bear. We came in, we did the buildings ourselves, so if anyone wants to sell them, they should be market-rate. We’re autonomous people, we built the buildings, we should be able to get whatever we want.” I said— you might find this conversation interesting— I said, “OK, I agree with you, but the market, so-called market, is triply inflated by manipulative design. It’s an artificially inflated real estate market, which is reflected in all the homelessness and high rents. What we need to do is determine what the place is actually worth and put a cash value on it.” I figured it was worth about $150,000. To build an apartment and live in it, to create from zero to build the whole thing and live here and create a situation where people can move right in? It’s worth about $150,000. So that’s what they wound up doing on Seventh Street.

The other thing Michael said was the only way ordinary people, working-class people, have ever been able to accumulate any kind of wealth in America has been through homeownership. Through the ownership of their homes, and that is what we have to do. We have to adapt to the society by placing a cash value on our homes. That way people will have something to walk away with if they have to leave, if they eventually want to leave or if they have to leave. That idea is so important because people need to be able to hold some form of wealth. Because if you don’t have wealth— wealth is reflected in a little farm with a barn and a house and a well, and some farm animals. That’s wealth. But in New York if you don’t have money, you’re just, like, at the mercy of the state. You have to sleep on the street, you get kicked around by the cops, go to the shelter, get woken up at seven in the morning, get kicked out, wander around looking for a job. As soon as you have no place to live, your bargaining power goes down to zero. So unless you establish your land rights, you will continue to be pushed around by people who claim to own the whole world. And it’s not actually the case, but they’ve managed to shove their ridiculous ideology down the throat of almost every living being on this planet, and it’s time to reverse that.

The Details of the Deal

Squatters began negotiating a legalization deal in 1999, in a city wildly different from the one in which they had claimed vacant, city-owned buildings in the 1980s. It was the pinnacle of the dot-com boom,  just before the bust. Republican Rudolph Giuliani was six years into his eight years as mayor, and his policies of  broken windows policing and privatization were in full effect. Still, there was dissent. In February police killed unarmed Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo outside his apartment in the Bronx, firing forty-one shots and hitting Diallo nineteen times. Resentment of aggressive policing once again exploded to the surface in the city. It was May of that year that Giuliani scheduled an auction to sell hundreds of community gardens on city-owned land to the highest bidder, a plan that was foiled by a grassroots campaign (described in the introduction) in which squatters and Lower East Side gardeners played leading roles. While the doctrine of privatization compelled the city to somehow get rid of those city-owned buildings occupied by squatters, one imagines that the prospect of negotiating with these flagrant lawbreakers must not have been very attractive to the Giuliani administration, until then distinguished by its vehement critiques of and aggressive attacks on the “scourge” of squatters (Steinhauer 2002). The squatters’ intense political, legal, and physical resistance to eviction seems to have made their buildings essentially economically worthless to the city. The city needed a way to get rid of these buildings, but it could not sell them without emptying them, and it could not empty them without an expensive and embarrassing fight.

And so the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), the Department of  Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), and the group of squatters engaged in the negotiations made a deal. As the process of legalization progressed, the deal continued to evolve, and there was another period of intensive negotiations in the mid-2000s, mainly around the resale value of apartments in the former squats. The eventual agreement was shaped by the political climate and local history, the models of ownership and financing familiar to those engaged in the negotiations, and the resources available.

The arrangement they made covered all eleven buildings: HPD, the legal owner, would not have to formally acknowledge the squatters living in the buildings. It would sell the buildings to UHAB technically vacant for one dollar each. UHAB would have to bring the buildings up to code and then would transfer them, along with all of the debt accrued in the process of renovation, to the now-former squatters. Although many of the buildings were livable and even comfortable by 2002, they needed extensive renovations to be brought into line with all of  New York City’s building codes. The buildings would become low-income limited-equity cooperatives, meaning that there would be restrictions on the income of future purchasers of apartments in the buildings, as well as a cap on the resale price of the apartments. The income caps are based on a percentage of area median income (120 percent, or $93,240 for a family of three in 2015), and the resale prices start from a base calculated from the size of the apartment ($105,000 for a one-bedroom), which rises 3 percent every year. Market rate for a tenement apartment in the neighborhood could be from $500,000 to $1 million. Each building also gets one apartment it can sell or rent to a household making up to 165 percent of  the area median income, to help it keep the rest of the building affordable. The restrictions last for about forty years or the life of subsidized loans, which is typical for HDFCs.

Limited-equity low-income co-ops were a structure familiar to UHAB staff: the Tenant Interim Lease and Urban Homesteading Programs that were their specialty had this form of tenure as their end point.3 This was also a model familiar to some of the squatters and to HPD. In a co-op building, the legal entity that owns the building and the land is an incorporated co-op, which is run by a board usually consisting of members of the co-op. Members own shares in the co-op, rather than owning their specific apartment, for which they have a long-term “proprietary lease” (Low, Donovan, and Gieseking 2012). This is in contrast to condominiums, in which residents actually own their units, or community land trusts, where residents just buy the use rights to buildings, while the land trust retains ownership of the land. Other models were proposed but never considered very seriously. In order to have a community land trust, there must be a community to control the trust. The community of squatters, always diverse and decentralized, was not unified enough to take on the creation of a land trust by the time these negotiations were happening. Perhaps more important, this was not the model UHAB was used to working with, and squatters, inexperienced at creating legal ownership structures, were guided by UHAB’s more experienced staff. There was actually an existing land trust on the Lower East Side at the time, RAIN (Rehabilitation in Action to Improve Neighborhoods, incorporated in 1987), but it had been “hibernating” since at least 1993 (von Hassell 1996, 161) and was in no position to take on additional properties (Brandstein 2012).

Starting in 1996, New York City had stopped taking ownership of properties on which taxes had not been paid. Under the new Third Party Transfer Program, the city could still foreclose on these buildings, but it would immediately transfer them to a third party, either a for-profit or not-for-profit agency, which would manage them as rentals or convert them into co-ops. The program aimed to allow existing tenants to stay and to develop the buildings as affordable housing, but, as in the squats, vacant units could be sold or rented at market rates to subsidize low-income units. UHAB was one of the agencies contracted to temporarily take over buildings under this program, and, while the squats were not part of the Third Party Transfer Program, it provided another model used in developing the legalization deal for the squats. Much as the idea of urban homesteading was easily assimilated to a 1970s and 1980s ideology of self-help and personal responsibility while also promoting potentially transformative community control of capital, the squatters’ do-it-yourself renovations and de facto property rights could now be fit in with the privatization of formerly city-owned property in the 1990s and 2000s. But this form of privatization would protect the squats from the market, preserving them as low-income housing and, if all went well, insulating them from speculation and private development. Squatters and their allies used the logic and infrastructure of privatization to legalize, protect, and limit their property rights.

Because the buildings had to be sold technically vacant, there was technically no population of former squatters eligible for grants or low-interest loans. The uniqueness and improvised nature of the deal made it difficult to access resources available through established programs such as the Tenant Interim Lease (TIL) Program. There were officially no tenants who could receive benefits or take ownership of  the building. For each building, UHAB and the squatters cobbled together a financing package that included some mix of low-interest loans, market-rate loans, special programs to fund a boiler or new stoves, and assistance to individuals who were going to have trouble making the monthly maintenance payments on their new homes. As the fast-talking, funny UHAB project director Marina Metalios put it, “In the beginning we were all working just with sweat, Scotch tape, chewing gum, elbow grease, innovation, and the smallest privately provided community lender bank loan we could find.” Some people were able to get Section 8 vouchers, which allow low-income people to pay rent— or, in this case, maintenance— on the open market with government money rather than having the government directly provide housing. Some senior citizens and people with disabilities were offered assistance through programs to protect them from rising housing costs. As of August 2015, the seven buildings that have completed the conversion process have taken on $9,563,838 in debt, and UHAB has borrowed $550,119for the one still under construction. Two and a half percent of the money borrowed went to UHAB as a project management fee.

Rather than renovate all of the buildings at once, UHAB dealt with them a few at a time. The process of taking out loans, doing renovations, and completing conversion was therefore uneven, with some buildings beginning almost immediately in 2002 and others still at the earliest stages ten years later. Because of the staggered and ad hoc nature of the process, while all eleven buildings are governed by the same overarching agreement, in practice each building got a different package of financial and social support and even slightly different regulatory agreements. For example, UHAB was able to secure Section 8 vouchers for residents of   the buildings that finished the process first, but Section 8 was unavailable to later buildings. After UHAB impressed upon HPD that the project could fail without more support, some buildings got access to city financing not available when the process started: four buildings got subsidized low-interest loans through the Department of  Housing Preservation and Development. These loans require only nominal payments for several decades while the primary bank loans are repaid, effectively extending repayment of  the total debt over a much longer period of time and reducing monthly payments. Residents of one outlier, 7½ Second Avenue, agreed that their building could be torn down and replaced with a condo building, in which they have low-income units subsidized through a new program that provides tax credits for the creation of affordable homeownership opportunities.

The legalization deal for these eleven Lower East Side squats was ad hoc and locally situated. It drew on the experiences of HPD, UHAB, and the squatters participating, trying to meet the needs of all involved without creating political difficulties for the government agencies and elected officials who had to sign on to it. A closer look at the points of contention in the extended negotiation process will show how squatters and their allies struggled to make sense of the history of illegal squatting on the Lower East Side as they collectively decided what the final outcome would be. They had made claims on these buildings as squatters, or as aspiring homesteaders, claims based on their labor, their deservingness, urban citizenship, and a critique of the neglect of city-owned property. How could these claims translate into a form of legal property ownership?

Amy Starecheski is Co-Director of the Oral History MA Program at Columbia University and received a PhD in cultural anthropology from the CUNY Graduate Center. She consults and lectures widely on oral history education and methods, and is co-author of the Telling Lives Oral History Curriculum Guide.

Reprinted with permission from, Ours to Lose: When Squatters Became Homeowners in New York City, by Amy Starecheski, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2016 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

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