Your House Isn’t Mine: Could a Political Squatting Movement Take Hold in America Today?

‘They’re stealing from another private individual, and that is very different from coming to a building that’s been empty for many, many years and is falling into disrepair.’

Wikimedia Commons
New York City's Lower East Side in the 1980s. Wikimedia Commons

Panic about squatters is reaching a fever pitch thanks in part to TikTok and a few high-profile property grabs. Politicians and the commentariat are warning that a European-style squatting movement could take hold in America. Are those fears overblown?

Governor DeSantis signed legislation last week to make squatting a felony criminal offense in Florida and to give sheriffs the power to evict squatters without going through housing court. Other states are debating similar legislation, including New York. 

“You are not going to be able to commandeer somebody’s private property,” Mr. DeSantis said. “We are in the state of Florida ending the squatter scam once and for all.”

I lived in a squat at Manhattan’s East Village in the early 2000s. I now own a home in New Hampshire. Going on vacation and coming back to find squatters in your house is any homeowner’s nightmare, including mine. The government’s main duty, as laid out in the Constitution, is to protect the rights to life, liberty, and property.

The Lower East Side squatting movement — and the art and punk scenes around it — defined my teenage years and 20s. If there is any American movement akin to the political squatting movements in cities like Amsterdam, Barcelona, and London, then it was New York’s Lower East Side squatting movement starting in the 1970s and running through 1990s. The building I lived in was a part of that.

These squatters, in contrast to the ones making headlines today, intentionally targeted derelict city-owned buildings for occupation. In the 1970s and ’80s, there were hundreds of abandoned buildings at the East Village, a subsection of the Lower East Side bounded by East 14th Street to the north and Houston Street to the South. 

I made a documentary film about the movement in 2004, after the city sold 12 squatted buildings to the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board for $1 each to help the squatters renovate the buildings, bring them up to code, and then transfer ownership to the squatters. The film was aptly titled “Your House Is Mine,” a nod to a 1988 squatter-based art project of the same name.

The Giuliani administration negotiated the 2002 deal to legalize the squats. It went into effect in the early days of the Bloomberg administration. After decades of struggle, high-profile evictions, and riots at Tompkins Square Park in 1988, the squatters in these 12 buildings won — and it was two Republican mayors who made it happen.

It’s difficult to quantify how big a problem squatting is in America today. Several recent news stories have called squatting an “epidemic” and cited figures from a trade organization, the National Rental Home Council, showing there are 1,200 squatted properties at Atlanta, 475 at Dallas-Fort Worth, and 125 at Orange County, Florida. Even LeBron James’s Beverly Hills neighborhood isn’t immune. Yet there is no national database of squatter cases and numbers are hard to come by.

“The NRHC doesn’t have data on squatters that you’re looking for,” a representative for the National Rental Home Council replied to the Sun by email when asked if there has been an increase in squatter cases nationwide. The group declined to speak with the Sun.

Now the issue is dividing along partisan lines. A WNYC radio host, Brian Lehrer, on Wednesday called the recent press focus on squatters a “moral panic” and “catnip for the right-wing echo chamber because it vilifies some of their favorite villains like homeless people and maybe migrants.”

Concern over squatters first spiked in March after a TikTok video went viral of a Venezuelan migrant “influencer” calling on others crossing the southern border to “invade” empty American houses. “I found out that there is a law that says that if a house is not inhabited, we can seize it,” the migrant says.

Add to this the murder last month of a 52-year-old woman found stuffed inside a duffle bag in her late mother’s Kips Bay apartment. Two squatters occupying the place have been arrested and charged with her killing.

Then there was the arrest of a Queens woman, Adele Andaloro, for changing the locks on the $1 million home she inherited from her parents to thwart squatters who had moved in. Channel 7 news cameras caught Ms. Andaloro on tape as she was led out of her home by police in handcuffs. “Technically he can’t be kicked out,” a NYPD officer tells Ms. Andaloro of the squatter. “You need to go to court.”

Even Senator Fetterman is weighing into the issue. “Squatters have no rights,” he told the New York Post. “I am not woke.”

There is now a whole genre of TikTok videos about squatters’ rights. There are even some giving instructions on how to squat. No matter the numbers, if it’s your property and a squatter won’t leave, it is indeed a crisis. 

“What we’re seeing now is really people that they used to call in the U.K. ‘bad squatters’ — they’re people that go after private landlords and take advantage of New York’s very liberal tenant laws to enable them to say they’ve been there for longer than 30 days and they can’t be evicted without going to housing court, which because of the backlogs can take two years to evict someone,” a former Village Voice reporter who has covered the Lower East Side squatting movement since the late 1980s, Sarah Ferguson, tells me. 

“They’re stealing from another private individual, and that is very different,” Ms. Ferguson says, “from coming to a building that’s been empty for many, many years and is falling into disrepair and even a danger, attracting junkies and fire and rats and problems and then saying, we’re not going to wait on the list for affordable housing, we’re just going to create it ourselves.” 

Ms. Ferguson says the Lower East Side squatters intentionally occupied city-owned buildings to establish long-term residence and ultimately to stake an adverse possession claim. In order to make such a legal claim in New York, a person must show he continuously occupied the property for at least 10 years, took it over without the owner’s consent, and did so notoriously or openly. That’s a much higher bar to prove than what current squatters are claiming with fake leases to abuse New York City’s 30-day tenant law.

In the 1970s, when the squatting movement started, the city was on the verge of bankruptcy and landlords would often torch their buildings to collect insurance money, default on taxes, or simply walk away because maintaining and operating a rental building in the area was no longer profitable. Redlining on the part of banks and a thriving drug trade in the neighborhood compounded the problem. 

The city encouraged homesteading then through several nonprofit programs that operated in conjunction with the Department of Housing Preservation & Development. “It was encouraged as a way to reclaim all of these parts of the city that had been ravaged by the fiscal crisis,” Ms. Ferguson says. 

Most of those programs were discontinued as investment poured into the area in the 1980s, amidst the burgeoning East Village art scene. That’s when a larger movement toward seizing city-owned property for illegal squats started. 

“Taking advantage of that opportunity, the incentive of lots of abandoned buildings to utilize and the dilemma of ever escalating rents for the buildings that were occupiable and owned by landlords,” a squatter on East 7th Street, Michael Shanker, told me when I interviewed him for my documentary, “a broader movement toward seizing property all over the neighborhood started … in the spring of ’84.”

The other major difference between the political squatting movement and what’s happening today is that the Lower East Side squatters sought to improve the buildings in what was a blighted neighborhood. There was drug use and dysfunction among some of the squatters, and there is some debate within the movement about how much the squatters — many white, artsy punk types — contributed to the gentrification of the neighborhood, but real estate investment often follows artists and countercultural types.

“The squatters were the stormtroopers of gentrification,” a squatter and director of ABC No Rio arts space, Steve Englander, told me.

“Yeah, we drove drug dealers out of our buildings,” Mr. Shanker said, though he disputed the squatters’ role in gentrification. “And probably the single element that did the most to dissuade yuppies from coming here was rampant illicit drug trade and the violence that accompanies it.”  

So why did a Republican mayor — Mr. Giuliani no less — help the squatters keep their buildings? In 1995, the city evicted three squats on East 13th Street in a big standoff — in which police used a decommissioned army tank — that cost the city millions of dollars. After spending all that money, the city spent even more in the form of tax breaks to a nonprofit to renovate at least one of the buildings for low-income housing.

In essence, the city evicted one group of low-income New Yorkers to install another at great expense. Add to this the bad press of evicting families with an army tank.

“Giuliani wanted to get the city out of the business of housing,” a project director for the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, Marina Metalios, told me in 2003. Selling the buildings to UHAB achieved that, even if he wasn’t particularly fond of the squatters.

Outrage about squatters taking over private homes is justified. What’s happening now may not be a harbinger of a larger political movement, but it does signify the mainstreaming of a once-fringe far-left ideology — “eat the rich” and “landlords are scum” — that underpinned the squatter movement of decades past. That ideology was appealing to me as a young radical. Taking from the state even more so. 

Now, people of my generation are making the laws. No wonder property protections are so lax — and that’s the bigger threat in the long term.

The New York Sun

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