You don't know squatting: A movement returns

With a massive amount of real estate in foreclosure, a new generation moves in on abandoned property

Published May 12, 2010 11:01AM (EDT)

Pete stood at the bottom of the brownstone stoop in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and watched Rob disappear around the corner of the block. He reappeared giving a double thumbs-up with his gloved hands -- the signal for all clear. Pete climbed the steps up to the chipped, wooden front door and slipped a key into the padlock as Rob peered up and down Bedford Avenue, vacant of all but a few passing cars four hours before dawn.

The three-story brownstone was as empty as they had left it early the previous morning -- dusty pale wooden floors, and wires poking out where electricity sockets should be. In the third floor bathroom, where no fixtures remained, a 2-foot-high black bucket in the center of the room would serve as the toilet.

"This is definitely one of the nicest places I've squatted," said Pete, a baby-faced 25-year-old who declined to give his last name because he faces charges for civil disobedience. His fellow squatter, Rob Freeman, 34, a former anthropology professor at the University of Florida with thick black-rimmed glasses and elfin features, agreed. "This place is a real find," he said.

It was only their second night in the newly claimed squat, the beginning of a project that aims to create a home for five more people -- including at least two currently living in New York City's shelter system.

"There are always squatters in New York," said Freeman. "But there hasn't been a squat movement -- an organized effort to claim property -- since the 1970s and 1980s."

And a squat movement is what Pete and Freeman believe they are continuing. Although they'd only occupied the Bedford Avenue squat for two days, throughout the year they had been attending meetings to plan the takeover, to learn tips and tricks to keep the authorities at bay, and to discuss which desperate New Yorkers would move in once the place was fixed up. The idea is to then repeat the process in another vacant property, and then another and another, and so on.

In the wake of the housing bubble's burst, vacant property has come to the forefront of public consciousness, and while tens of thousands of housing units sit empty in New York -- from foreclosed homes to abandoned construction sites -- squatters are trying to make their move.

They are not squatting for financial expediency. Indeed, were Pete and Freeman so inclined, their college and post-graduate educations, respectively, would stand them in good stead to join the money-earning, rent-paying masses. For them, squatting is about everyone's right to housing; they are anarchists who reject the idea that homes be treated as commodities to be speculated over for profit. "It's an old squatters' adage," said Freeman. "Don't just squat to live, but live to squat."

There are no official statistics for the number of vacant properties in New York, but three years ago, Bronx-based homeless advocacy group Picture the Homeless conducted a count of Manhattan's empty buildings. Twenty-four thousand apartments could come out of the vacant buildings and lots that were canvassed. On May 11, 2010, the Right to the City Coalition -- of which Picture the Homeless is a member -- repeated the canvass in six low-income areas around the city, including Bushwick and the South Bronx. 4,092 luxury units were found vacant in New York's poorest areas. "It's outrageous. Speculative property owners keep these buildings empty, when there are more than 35,000 people without homes in this city," said Rob Robinson, a Picture the Homeless leader who himself slept on the streets in Miami for eight years.

The practice of keeping properties vacant -- also known as "warehousing" -- when money could be made from renters seems to defy logic. However, foreclosures turned banks into reluctant landlords, with little interest in renovating and renting properties. Rather, whole apartment blocks are often warehoused until they can be sold when market prices improve.

Picture the Homeless wants the landlords to commit to turning the properties into permanent low-income housing (or to sell at a low price to someone who would). They work with other groups in New York -- such as Reclaim NYC and the Housing Not Warehousing Coalition, as well as organizations from further afield, like Miami's Take Back the Land, who also have connections with squat movements in Los Angeles and Detroit.

The groups combat warehousing by squatting but also through headline-grabbing stunts, aimed to highlight the injustice of vacant property and homelessness.

In late 2006, for example, Take Back the Land occupied a vacant lot in Miami and erected a makeshift village of 20 wood-framed structures to house 50 homeless locals. The village burned in April 2007 under what the organization described as "suspicious circumstances." And in July 2009, Picture the Homeless organized its first takeover in an empty lot in East Harlem. The organizers set up tents, hung large banners and were joined by around 100  supporters chanting, "They say gentrify, we say occupy!" Police closed down the demonstration and 10 participants were arrested.

"Takeovers, or showdowns, are publicity tactics," explained Robinson, adding that it is not the primary goal to keep the spaces occupied during such actions. "But squats have to be kept secret because the aim is to stay in the property for the long term."

The network of groups like Picture the Homeless are equally as dedicated to this tacit activity of moving people into spaces with a view toward squatting for the long term. They have been bringing together squatters and arranging meetings in which those interested in illegally occupying buildings could strategize. The Bedford Avenue squatters found each other through this network.

"I've never squatted in such a systematic way before. We've been watching this property and planning our movements for weeks," said Massachusetts-born Pete, who temps as an event planner but dedicates much of his time to working with Reclaim NYC, an advocacy group committed to the redistribution of vacant property.

Indeed, at the Bedford Avenue squat a systematic approach was evident. Although Pete and Freeman had only spent one night in the property, they had already boarded the windows with thick black cardboard to keep the outside from seeing in. This was all part of a system perfected by squatters in New York's Lower East Side in the 1980s.

At a meeting in a small, whitewashed gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Frank Morales -- an old-school squatter and self-proclaimed "unlawful entry expert" -- passed on his well-used tips to a group including Freeman, Pete and a poncho-clad activist named Jo with a tattoo of a clenched fist (a well-known anarchist symbol) etched on his neck. Morales, who heads Picture the Homeless' housing initiatives, has been living in a squatted apartment in lower Manhattan since the early 1980s.

Morales was an assistant pastor at St Mark's Church in the East Village from 1978 to 2008, and because of his public role often acted as the mouthpiece for the squat movement. He explained the steps squatters must take to successfully take a property.

"If you think a property might be vacant, because its windows are boarded up and so on, you have to stake it out for a while. You check out the address on the Department of Finance database to see who owns it. Ideally, it would be a bank or the city. You have to watch the building, especially at night, to make sure no one's going in and out. After a couple of weeks you can get a pretty good idea if it's empty or not," said Morales, whose thick black hair, slim, fashionable goatee and athletic figure far belie his 60 years.

He expounded on the further steps for successful squatting. Safety is paramount; Morales advises all potential squatters to check the structural stability of any building, to look for rot or drooping ceilings. Only when a building's structural integrity is verified should a group of squatters take the next steps and put their own locks on the doors and secure other possible entry points, like windows. Then, according to Morales, they should black out the windows.

"For the first month, at least, you want to stay under the radar -- go in late at night, leave early in the morning," said Morales, who also stressed the importance of having mail sent to the address with the squatters' names on it. "If you've had mail delivered there for a month, and the police turn up, you use it as proof that you've been living there for a while, that you're a valid resident. They usually leave you alone if you can show them that."

Equally important to the illusion of ownership, he said, was to make the house look like a home. Indeed, a large brownstone with no electricity and only a large bucket for a toilet does not give the impression of homeyness.

Morales explained that were the squatters able to procure the necessary personal property -- a toilet, a bathtub, light fittings and so on -- from dumpsters, a fellow seasoned squatter with the moniker "Midnight Mike" would be able to set up their electricity and water. "Often companies like Con Edison don't care who actually owns the property, so long as the bill is being paid," said Morales, highlighting what is a commonly believed myth -- that squatting is entirely free. All squat residents put what money they can toward utility bills, building materials and sometimes food. The difference between this and rent is that no property owner makes a profit.

The standoffs between the New York Police Department and Morales' generation of squatters have borne out countless urban legends. It was commonly believed that the squatters threw urine-filled balloons at police officers who confronted them. In fact, there was only one urine incident: The squatters threw buckets they'd used as toilets at the police during an attempted eviction raid.

Their tactics, dirty or otherwise, were largely successful -- 11 buildings taken in the early 1980s remain in the occupiers' hands to this day. However, five buildings on East 13th Street were lost in 1995 in what has come to be known as "the battle over 13th Street," during which hundreds of riot police with vacate orders met with barricades and around 60 protesters. Thirty-one arrests later, the evictions were complete.

Jessica Hall, 43, a friend of Morales' who raised her two teenage children in a squatted apartment on East Seventh Street, said that after the 13th Street evictions, the other Lower East Side buildings were no longer at risk, since the mayor, Rudy Giuliani, had spent millions on evicting the five properties and could not afford to repeat the process.

"Things really came together after that," said Hall, who is currently studying for a master's in social work at Hunter College. "After long negotiations our buildings were turned over to UHAB -- the Urban Homesteaders Assistance Board -- for a price of $1 each. They helped us get loans to bring the buildings up to regulation so that we could stay in them," she said. The situation as it stands is that UHAB technically owns most of the buildings on behalf of the tenants, but decisions about the buildings remain in the hands of the residents.

The Bedford Avenue squatters have a long way to go before they can hope for any such legal recognition. The stripped Brooklyn house would also need a lot of work if it were to look anything like Hall's bohemian-chic dwellings. Aside from a fully fitted kitchen and bathroom, her two-bedroom apartment boasts heavy dark-wood furniture and lilac painted, exposed brick walls that would leave Manhattan's trendiest loft owners green with envy.

Hall stressed the importance of "sweat equity" in renovating a property. "It was all about construction and labor. Squatters have to be skilled workers," she said.

According to experts, however, it may take more than a supportive network and D.I.Y. know-how for vacant properties to stay in squatters' possession today. "Everybody knows there's a lot of potential for squatting now," said professor Tom Angotti of the Hunter College Department of Urban Affairs and Planning, "but the type of vacancies that there are today are very different to those that arose in the 1980s. A lot of them are due to unfinished construction, and will be occupied again when the economy picks up."

And where the squatters of yesteryear faced the Giuliani administration to stay in city-owned property, the current swath of vacancies belongs to banks and developers, and not the city, according to a representative from the New York Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Indeed, the situation when Morales began squatting was markedly different. The proliferation of vacancies was due to mass abandonment when the urban middle classes left the city for the suburbs, and police raids on drug users emptied out buildings. Today, however, vacant properties are not abandoned, but warehoused by speculative landlords or awaiting completion by developers in financial difficulty. Squatters will likely not be left alone for long.

Yet, at least for now, Morales disciples are not dissuaded by the disheartening prospect of watchful landlords. "We might as well try," said Freeman with an impish grin. "We've even been watching another empty place in Brooklyn. It will need a lot of work. Apparently there isn't even a roof right now. But the old-school New York squatters fixed up worse."

Natasha Lennard, 23, is a British journalist based in New York, where she lives in an unsquatted apartment and is studying for a master's at the Columbia University Journalism School. She has written for the New York Times and the Economist's lifestyle magazine, Intelligent Life. 

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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