Squatting in New York City: Justification and Strategy


As New York City’s low-income housing crisis deepens, the unauthorized, illegal occupation of a residence – squatting – becomes an increasingly popular strategy in the city’s residential neighborhoods, partly because in New York and in other American cities, market processes and public policies have created a large pool of both underhoused people and abandoned, underutilized housing. The result is a serious, visible problem co-existing with an obvious, visible solution. Since adequate shelter is a matter of survival, those without it are likely to utilize empty buildings even if they do not own those buildings or have the legal right to tenancy.

Despite its advantages, squatting can be controversial even among community organizers. The following are just some of the objections to squatting: 1) it violates property fights; 2) it subjects the participants to the risk of arrest; 3) it involves significant labor and expense to rehabilitate the housing, which invariably is in poor physical condition; 4) squatters gain shelter for themselves at the expense of the hundreds of thousands on waiting lists for public housing; and 5) squatting is likely to antagonize neighborhood residents who object to the presence of squatters.

The first four objections cannot be easily dismissed. But the low-income housing crisis in the City is so severe that even strategies as controversial as squatting must be seriously considered if they can add a significant number of low-income units to the City’s housing stock. The last objection is also a legitimate criticism of the increasingly common, informal squatting efforts made in New York City. Informal squatters often use ingenious means to enter boarded-up buildings, to pirate electricity, to find food and water, and to generate heat. Such efforts often take place without the support of neighbors, and they do not add permanent, safe units to the City’s housing stock. The squatters generally lack the financial and political resources to transform their rundown housing into permanently liveable homes, to avoid eviction, and to obtain the deeds to abandoned buildings.

But the objections which can be made about informal squatting efforts cannot be as easily applied to better-organized campaigns. The latter often lead to homesteading efforts which add to the City’s permanent low-income housing stock. Homesteading differs from squatting because it is legal and, as a result, more easily gains financial support from the City or other funding agencies for housing rehabilitation.

This Article describes an organized squatting campaign which the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) initiated in 1985 in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn. This illegal squatting effort eventually led to a legal homesteading program developed by a new organization, the Mutual Housing Association of New York (MHANY). The East New York example indicates that effective squatting efforts require: local community support for the squatters, effective community organizing to persuade municipal governments to support squatting and rehabilitation in lieu of private sector remedies, financing for adequate rehabilitation of new residences, and careful selection of the squatters to ensure their continuing commitment to the housing program.’ To explain why this and other squatting efforts are both increasingly common and justified, we must first consider what caused a housing crisis so severe that resort to the controversial act of squatting became inevitable.

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