Squatters Become Owners
After 20-Year Occupation;
City Gave Away Buildings
By Henry J. Stern
May 18, 2009
On Sunday (May 17) the Post published our column on squatters. It was part of a two page spread, which included a news story, a map of the East Village and nine photographs. The account was written by Ginger Adams Otis, a Post reporter. The headline is SPACE INVADERS PAY DIDDLY SQUAT: City Hands $5M Building to '80s Arts Crew. Ms. Otis' lede:
"Sometimes crime does pay.
"Nearly 30 years after an eclectic group of poets, performers, anarchists and artists illegally occupied a burned-out East Village tenement, they've officially become a Manhattan co-op.
"Last Monday, the group signed off on the final paperwork allowing them to legally call their one-bedroom apartments home. They're now owners of the Bullet Space building - named after the art gallery and community space on its ground floor.
"The cleaned-up, five-story cooperative at 292 E. Third St. is a far cry from the rat-infested hellhole into which they first moved in the 1980's as squatters. Back then it was so derelict its owners chose to walk away rather than pay taxes. Now the city says it's worth $2.2 million, and real estate experts estimate its market value [as] between $4 million and $5 million."
The Post asked for our opinion on the issue, and in response I wrote the following column, which appeared on p6 of the Sunday paper. This is the text, slightly modified:
"Some think turning over buildings to squatters is a milestone in the redistribution of property. It allows relatively poor people to own and enjoy what formerly belonged to the greedy landlord class.
"Others see it as a reward for flagrant, lawless behavior, not only paying a ransom, but handling over the entire ship to pirates. Critics argue that this policy encourages illegal seizures of abandoned buildings, and makes fools of people who work hard to acquire property the normal way: by purchase.
"As is so often the case in matters of public policy, the truth lies somewhere in between.
"Turning over East Village buildings to squatters was an ad hoc solution to a particular, protracted case that is part of a social problem that has plagued the Lower East Side for over 20 years.
"In 1996, squatters were removed violently from buildings they had illegally occupied and some structures were bulldozed. People sneaked back into the premises and it became a nightly struggle to keep them out.
"The buildings had been abandoned by their previous owners because they were impossible to maintain and operate at the rents that could be charged legally. No one who wanted decent housing would live there anyway. The squatters shared the buildings for a while with rats and other unwelcome guests. The situation simmered for years.
"On principle, city buildings taken in rem should not be left to decay further. They should be sold at auction so that all will have the opportunity to bid for them, not just the insiders who have broken the law by occupying apartments to which they have no valid claim.
"Many of those who squatted in the East Village were not former tenants, but newcomers. They are squatters of opportunity.
"This solution was viewed by Mayor Ed Koch and, later, by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, as a way to resolve an unusual, long neglected situation in the East Village.
"But giving away buildings in lower Manhattan to people who break into them and declare themselves owners should not be considered the new public policy of the city of New York.
"Over the years, squatting, like graffiti, has been romanticized as an expression of popular will and an assault on the establishment. That may be true- but it is not the best way to allocate scarce housing among a large and deserving population."
Writing as a Monday morning quarterback about my own column, I am aware that what can be the right solution to a particular problem may set a precedent that one does not wish to follow. After the city let the squatters stay in the building for over ten years, it is hard not to have sympathy for the urban homesteaders. It is not as if they displaced anyone; the buildings had long been abandoned by their rightful owners. The Urban Homesteading Assistance Board was a useful non-profit intermediary.
This is not, however, a formula for solving the city's affordable housing program. It rewards the invasion and occupation of OPP (other people's property). When the owners walked away from the buildings, they became the property of the City of New York. The City should have repaired or sold the houses promptly.
By doing neither, the city left the properties open to seizure by people who wanted to live there, and who were prepared to put up with the rats and the cold in order to do so. If everyone had done their jobs, this situation would not have arisen. But they did not, and the situation festered until 1999, when an agreement in principle was reached, although it was not finalized until 2002, the first year of Mayor Bloomberg's administration. It took seven years after that for the rehabilitation of the first building to be completed. (It's now 2009.)
We trust this will not be a precedent for the disposition of city-owned buildings.
As to the fortunate new co-operators: live long and prosper.
#558 05.18.2009 884 wds