FOUR years ago, Jesus Hernandez, spurred by a 72-hour eviction notice, hacked his way into a boarded-up tenement in the East New York section of Brooklyn. For months, Mr. Hernandez and his wife and 10 children lived like urban pioneers in the crumbling building - among the estimated 30,000 illegal squatters in New York's abandoned housing. They heaved out piles of rubble to clear a living space. They cooked meals on a propane stove, and ate by kerosene lamp. Water came from a hydrant across the street.
``I knew I was breaking the law when we took over this place,'' said Hernandez, a school custodian. ``I was very scared that the city would come down on me. But ... I couldn't find a place for my family anywhere else.''
Hernandez is just one of dozens of squatters who in August 1985 broke into 25 abandoned, city-owned buildings and claimed them as their own.
Advised by a national community organizing group called ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), the squatters justified the takeovers by claiming that the need for low-income housing was intolerable in a city that owns 5,000 vacant buildings and has 200,000 families waiting for public housing. City officials were enraged; 11 people were arrested.
Since then, the illegal squatters have evolved into city-sanctioned homesteaders and incorporated as the Mutual Housing Association of New York (MHANY) - the first low-income home ownership program in the city, say organizers. The collective of homesteaders persuaded the city to give it 58 buildings seized for tax delinquencies and $2.7 million in grants and low-interest loans to rehabilitate the buildings.
Now, Hernandez and seven other MHANY members are just weeks away from obtaining the coveted certificate of occupancy.
The mutual housing association offers money and technical assistance in return for ``sweat equity,'' usually hauling garbage or painting. The association places the title to the property in a separate trust, and retains a first option to buy the building for a price reflecting the homesteader's investment. This allows the building to be resold to another low-income family.
Mutual housing has already been tried in Western Europe and Canada, as well as Baltimore, Madison, Wis., and Minneapolis.
``The association is basically a model for developing low-income, scattered-site housing,'' said Ron Shiffman, director of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development. ``It provides more directed aid to families who qualify as homesteaders.''
``We can work on a much larger scale,'' adds Peter Wood, executive director of MHANY. ``We're prepared to move on as large a scale as the city provides units and money for. But the city hasn't released more money to allow this to happen.''
Based on the its track record, the city does not rate homesteading as an effective way to reconstruct its 53,000 empty, foreclosed units. The city's own urban homesteading program has completed but 24 buildings since 1980. The Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development (HPD), which administers the homesteading program, said that processing deeds, loan applications, and other paperwork cause delays. A high turnover among homesteaders with strained incomes further plagues the program.
Cathie Marshall, spokeswoman for HPD, said that the city prefers to work with small developers to rebuild its vacant buildings by 1993. A variety of city programs provide $2.4 billion in grants and low-interest construction loans to keep the housing affordable.
``We don't see homesteading as a solution,'' said Ms. Marshall. ``The process is too slow. It can't meet the kind of volume needed to rebuild 53,000 units.''
Some housing experts are equally skeptical: ``Homesteading remains a very potent phrase, but as yet nobody has put together a program that permits reasonable success,'' said George Sternlieb, a professor at Rutgers University and the former director of its Center for Urban Policy Research. ``You need people with awesome stick-to-it-ness, motivated by a leader who is dynamic and charismatic enough to run General Motors.''
ACORN may have found such a motivator in Louise Stanley, chairman of the organization's East New York chapter. She watched her working-class neighborhood deteriorate during the city's 1970s fiscal crisis.
Stanley recalled that East New York was a ``young ghetto'' when an ACORN organizer knocked on her door. Organizers had come to Brooklyn because it has more vacant, city-owned buildings than any other part of the city. After a year of planning, Stanley took up a bullhorn and galvanized a cheering crowd to illegally break into and claim the first of 25 buildings in East New York.
City officials, caught in an election year, said the squatters were muscling the buildings away from the poor. After a year of bickering, the Pratt Institute stepped in as a mediator and persuaded ACORN to abandon squatting.
Pratt also joined with ACORN and the Consumer-Farmer Foundation to form the Mutual Housing Association of New York. Pratt, which has a long history of providing technical assistance to low-income community development efforts, lent the project its architectural and technical expertise. Consumer-Farmer Foundation stepped in as financial planner and banker.
In March 1988, the city transferred title to 58 East New York buildings to MHANY, and reconstruction began on 35 of the buildings. The greater part of the work is expected to be completed by late 1990.
``The city has to be forced to do anything with homesteading - it would rather auction off its real estate,'' said Louise Stanley. ``But the neighborhood welcomed us with banners when we came in and took those buildings. It's not such a strange concept to fight for something that seems like a right.''