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Experts Lay Out A Comprehensive Primer To Squatting In NYC

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The latest sky-scraping new residential tower under construction and how may zillions of dollars people will pay to live there are frequent, favorite topics on this site. But consider the opposite of that: squatting. That topic, and how to do it right, was the subject of a talk last night at the East Village's Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space, or MoRUS. Appropriately enough, the museum itself is a reclaimed urban space. About two decades ago, the building was left to rot first by its owner and then by the city. There was no roof and there were no stairs. But squatters took over the space, fixed the stairs, rebuilt the roof, and brought the building up to fire code. Now, the museum, which opened in December of 2013, occupies the first floor and basement and a collective lives in the apartments above. From the street, it looks like an ordinary building, but it's actually called C-Squat. It serves as an example to wannabe squatters; now, onto the practical advice.

Last night's event, the "ABC's of Squatting in NYC," was led by Bill Di Paola, a professional plumber (a highly useful skill for a squatter) who is also the founder of the environmental action group Time's Up and co-founder of MoRUS. Joining him was Frank Morales, a political activist who has been squatting since 1979.

Morales read from his zine "Squatting in New York City," in which he defined squatters as follows:

A group of people of varying ages and backgrounds, hopefully possessing some construction skills or access to those who do, decide that they have had enough of the shelter system, enough of the humiliation, injustice and dehumanization of being homeless, or enough of the drain on their lives and wallets, and no longer able to afford the rip off rents that eat up most of the money they have, they decide to embark on a direct action approach to securing a home for themselves here in New York City. According to Morales, there are three times more vacant spaces in the city than there are homeless people. Some squatters even live by permission in brand-new, yet-to-be-completed residential buildings to serve as security for the building's owner.

Both Morales and Di Paola agree that squatting is a complicated endeavor. You are often committing to rebuilding a building, and that is no exaggeration. But here are some of the basics, extremely boiled down.

—Identify your target building and determine its status. Squatting is a legally precarious activity. So, city-owned buildings are the best bet. Once you get the address of the structure, you can find out the owner by going to the city's ACRIS system, entering your building's address, and clicking on "Document Search by BBL." It will have all of the records, including who the current owner is. You'll need to determine if you should continue with your target building or move on.

—Squatting is not a free activity. You'll need money to do a lot of stuff. But you can hold fundraisers. Just don't give your target address.

—You have to be covert at first. Keep your group small at first. "Loose lips," Morales reminded the audience. Scope out the area, but don't hang out in front of the building. Hang out on a stoop across the street. Don't go in through the front door. You may even need to gain access by getting into a neighboring occupied building and jumping on to your target's roof.

—Once you're in, check out the structure—its floors, walls, and so on. Determine whether there is electricity or water flowing into the building. How secure is the building? If you're not an expert in these areas, find a trustworthy friend who is and be prepared to call on him or her. Di Paola said that when you're turning on the water, do it slowly and make sure you have spotters throughout the building looking for leaks. If you need wood, lumberyards will often give away material they can't sell. On the electricity front, it may be possible to tap into a light pole. But Morales said many years ago, he and a group of squatters did that and cheered at their newfound power, only to have the lights start blinking shortly thereafter. It turned out they had accidentally latched onto the Walk/Don't Walk stoplight signal.

—Determine a room for your base of operations and stick to it while you work on the rest of the building.

—Winterize yourself. While having empty windows may seem nice on a late spring day, imagine if, right now, you were in a building exposed to the elements. A basic of winterization is getting thick plastic sheeting and stapling it to the window frames.

—Once you've done that, make sure you have a way to relieve yourself. If there are no working toilets, buckets may be involved. But don't let them get too full.

—You need to establish a claim of legal residency. They way you do that is by getting mail delivered to you continuously for 30 days or more. This will get you due process in any attempt to evict you and you shouldn't be immediately rousted by the NYPD as a trespasser. But, should the police decide to try and get you out of the building without a warrant, be prepared to stand up for yourself.

—Also, have an eviction watch group. That's a group of neighborhood supporters to whom you just blast a call, and they'll show up to support you. "Strength in numbers," Morales said. Carefully grow that network. Morales said you can sell your activity in part by saying it's an "antidote to gentrification."

One of the squatters in attendance, a man named Thaddeus Umpster, advised that you not drink alcohol or do drugs in your squat. It's a "political action," and you wouldn't show up to a political rally high or drunk. Plus, he said you need a "sober mind" because the police could come knocking at any time and you want a clear head to deal with that encounter.

Clearly, these endeavors are more complicated and less romantic than they might've appeared—not designed for the uncommitted, to be sure. For more information, e-mail Morales at frm@panix.com. If you want to get in touch with Di Paola, contacting MoRUS.
—Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.
· All Squatting coverage [Curbed]