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Housing Shortage Prompts Squatters to Rehabilitate Buildings

Low-cost housing continues to disappear as city's population of young professionals grows. NEW YORK CITY

By Russell W. BakerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 12, 1989


NEW YORK is a city of ironies. It has enormous numbers of homeless people - and equal numbers of empty apartments. Upward of 50,000 people are without permanent shelter, and countless tens of thousands live doubled or tripled up in crowded apartments. Yet New York City owns more than 5,000 empty buildings, which if fixed up, could eliminate the shortage.

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The city has an ambitious program to rehabilitate the buildings, many of which the owners abandoned or lost for nonpayment of taxes. Although officials say they are moving as fast as possible, housing experts say it will be a very long time before most homeless New Yorkers can expect a place of their own.

Now, an increasing number of citizens are taking matters into their own hands. They are moving into the shuttered structures, repairing them and making homes for themselves, especially on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where one of the largest concentrations of city-owned abandoned buildings lies.

Technically, what they are doing is illegal. But the squatters don't see the harm. ``If squatting is illegal, it's like taking bread from a restaurant's garbage,'' says one longtime squatter, Will Sales.

What is most striking about the squatters is their self-sufficiency. They want nothing from the government, they say, other than to be left alone to spruce up the decaying buildings.

``It seems to bother them that we're doing this on our own,'' says Joe, a construction worker who lives in a squat. ``I don't understand why - we're making good use of the space, providing housing for people. It's part of our nature - to make shelter for ourselves.''

The city says it is willing to compromise in some cases. ``There have been squatters who have for long periods of time demonstrated a desire to care for their building, and often upgraded it,'' says Edgar Kulkin, special assistant to the city's Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) commissioner. ``If a building is safe, or not being used for another program, a squatter can sometimes work out arrangements with the city.''

But New York City has been condemning and demolishing an increasing number of squatter buildings recently. Miriam Friedlander, who represents the Lower East Side on the City Council, says such demolitions are often unnecessary, because in most situations the buildings could have been shored up. A number of prominent architects concur. Ms. Friedlander says she has tried unsuccessfully to get the city to bring in experts for cost estimates on saving the buildings.

Last month, matters turned violent when squatters and neighborhood sympathizers faced off against riot police over a demolition taking place on the Lower East Side's 8th Street. Residents point out that six other squats on the same block have been destroyed by fire or demolished in the past two years.

Fire damage, often from arson, is a chief factor leading to demolition orders. Squatters contend, although they have provided no evidence, that the fires are set to get them out to make way for luxury buildings. ``Gang members get paid to torch the buildings,'' says Jack Talbot, a young construction worker who lives in the remaining squat on 8th Street. ``We have an arson watch 24 hours a day.'' Mr. Talbot also says he has been brutally attacked inside his building by large groups of men who were trying to force him to leave. He says he has rigged up a homemade defense system just inside the door to rout future assailants.