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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

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Many residents say the squatter situation is emblematic of a greater conflict between the bohemians and working-class people who have long populated the neighborhood, and upwardly mobile professionals who are becoming an ever-increasing percentage of New York's population.

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``The homeless problem is part of the effort to get the poor out of New York,'' says a squatter who would identify himself only as Joe. ``We know they want rich people in here.''

Bhagat Sajan is a young man who lives in one of the numerous new or rebuilt structures, which are increasingly popping up in the neighborhood. A sign out front advertises ``Co-ops for sale, apartments for rent.'' Before Mr. Sajan and his mother were evicted from their previous apartment, their rent was $390. Today, just 10 months later, they pay $1,195 for a smaller apartment. Their new building looks fancy, with its marble-like columns and pink trim. But the columns are of plywood, and the walls are thin.

Although Sajan and his mother manage to pay the rent, their circumstances are not unlike the squatters'. Sajan says his mother doesn't want to leave the neighborhood. As for himself, he says, ``I'm moving out of here. One day there won't be people like me in Manhattan.''

``We have people in the building who grew up in the community,'' says one squatter, who herself was a rent-paying tenant in the building before it was abandoned.

Squatters are a diverse group. Among them are the elderly, families, babies, the unemployed, workers, and artists of all races. Jo-Ann Jones, an older woman, became homeless after the family she lived with was burned out of its apartment. Being on disability, she couldn't afford the more than $1,000 rent on a comparable place in the same area. For three years after she moved into her squat, she did not hook up hot water or heat - she was too worried that the city would discover her.

Many squatters, however, move right ahead with remodeling work. Typically, squatters fix up their own apartments during the week, and work together on common areas on weekends. Some of the squatters are expert in plumbing, carpentry, or other skills, and teach their neighbors. On any Saturday, large numbers of people wearing hard hats can be seen stripping, hammering, and carting garbage from the several dozen buildings under repair throughout the neighborhood.

Many have done remarkable things with their apartments, and while some are quite primitive, others are elaborately decorated. Some have no heat; others have all the services an ordinary apartment-dweller would expect, including water, power, phone service, and mail delivery. Many of the buildings have tenants associations, which approve new arrivals, and through which decisions are made. Residents are commonly required to follow rules against stealing, violence, and hard drugs.

The squatters say that in a neighborhood with a growing crack problem, where abandoned buildings are frequently used for drug sales and prostitution, they are a stabilizing element. Many rent-paying neighbors say they agree.

Roz Post of the city's HPD argues a fairness issue. Even if the buildings are - or could be made - structurally sound, she says, it is not right for squatters to receive housing ahead of other homeless people who have been on waiting lists for years. Council member Friedlander suggests the city show that it is serious about providing housing by turning more of the buildings over to nonprofit organizations that have the capability to fix them up.

Meanwhile, the squatters and their supporters say that if the city tries to knock down more of the buildings they call home, they will not stand idly by. It could be, they warn, a long, hot summer.