Squatters of the Lower East Side

As New York City was transformed by real estate and finance interests in the 1990s, a group of squatters on the Lower East Side waged battle for affordable housing.

(Peter Spagnuolo)

Fly cuts a memorable figure: a petite woman, but wiry and strong; precise pale blond stripes bleached into her dark hair; perpetual large-framed sunglasses worn at the tip of her nose lending her, yes, a fly-like aspect, obscuring a beautiful face. She’s quick to smile, eager to tell a story.

And she’s got some good stories. As the artist who created the mural that hangs over ABC No Rio, the famed center for art and activism in New York City, and a musician and longtime squatter and activist, Fly is a fixture on the Lower East Side — a reminder of the neighborhood as it was in earlier, grittier days.

In October 2013, I visited Fly in her apartment in a squat on E. 7th Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. When she first moved into her building in 1992, she was granted a space in a section of the squat that had been gutted by fire. It had no floor or windows; no heat, no electricity, no running water. With the help of fellow squatters, she rebuilt the apartment over a period of several years.

During my visit, she brought out a thick photo album, one of many she has to document the history of the building. There, in the photo album, was the room where we sat, but twenty years earlier, sunlight streaming through gaping holes where there are now windows; where there is now a floor, there were just beams and the ceiling of the apartment below.

One photo showed two fellow squatters helping repair beams so the floor could be laid. In another, a younger Fly stood on a ladder, drill in hand, to clear a clog from her chimney pipe so she could install a wood-burning stove and finally have heat. (If you catch her in the right mood, she might sing one of her band’s songs from that era, “Piss Bucket,” about accidentally knocking over a bucket latrine — from the days before the building had working toilets — and finding there was no spill emergency because the bucket’s contents had frozen solid in the night.)

It’s a striking photo, a beautiful young woman confidently wielding a power tool. Fly told me about the measurements and calculations she’d had to do to precisely locate the clogged section of her chimney pipe — the clog, of course, located in someone else’s apartment above hers, and the pipe not running in a straight line. The pipes are made of clay, and have to be opened in a very deliberate, painstaking manner or the material shatters. She did the job herself, clearing the clog and resealing the pipe, doubly reinforcing her work, closing the wall and repairing the plaster.

I’d met Fly the previous spring when we did a show together at the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) to mark the eighteenth anniversary of the May 30, 1995, eviction of a community of squatted buildings on E. 13th Street. It was Fly; Frank Morales, a squatter, housing rights activist, and Episcopal priest; poet Peter Spagnuolo, who had led the 1994–5 legal battle to try to win title to the contested squats on E. 13th, where he had been a resident, as well as the subsequent resistance when that legal battle was lost; and me, who had never been a squatter, who had been a renter in the neighborhood but not present for the 1995 eviction. I was there to read from my debut novel, The Revolution of Every Day, which is inspired by the history of the Lower East Side squats in the 1990s.

Though my novel is fictional, my characters wholly invented, I came across many stories of individual squatters in my research. Three names that came up over and over: Fly, Morales, and Spagnuolo. And there I was, helping them mark the anniversary of a pivotal day in their lives, reading a scene from my work of fiction that had drawn on their stories. It was as if my characters and I were having a reunion eighteen years after the final page, and they had come to tell me that they were well, that everything had worked out fine.

starting out2
Peter Spagnuolo

Outside of fiction, things are a little more complicated than that.

When I sat down in 2005 to write what was to become The Revolution of Every Day, I thought of the project as a love letter to the New York City I felt I’d lost. Newly pregnant with my first child, I was caught up in the idea of home: the New York of my early childhood spent on the Lower East Side in Stuyvesant Town — in 1973, an affordable place for middle-class families to live, though now very different — and what it would be like to raise my own child in what New York had, by 2005, become.

The city had been altered drastically over the years. And so I wrote to understand what had happened. How could a place have changed so much that home no longer felt like home? The most obvious answer was gentrification, and a key to unpacking that answer can be traced through the history of the squatters of the Lower East Side.

In the 1970s, New York City was in grave fiscal crisis. Many in the middle class fled the city for the suburbs, deepening the city’s debt by the loss of their tax dollars. In 1975, the crisis reached a near breaking point, the cash-strapped city flirting dangerously with defaulting on its debts, which would have led to bankruptcy. Services were slashed, public-sector employees laid off; the city’s corporate and financial interests succeeded in rolling back the New York working class’s power.

These service cuts, unsurprisingly, were felt most acutely in working-class neighborhoods populated primarily by minorities such as the Lower East Side. Those who couldn’t afford to move to the suburbs (or, indeed, who would choose not to) were faced with severely reduced trash pickup, slower fire department response times due to closed stations, and limited public transit service.

On the Lower East Side, bank disinvestment exacerbated the already dire situation. Landlords, unable to refinance their properties due to redlining, abandoned buildings, some starting fires in an attempt to claim insurance money. These buildings became property of the city, entering in-rem forfeiture due to unpaid taxes. The city created the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to manage the buildings, which were warehoused empty rather than repaired and returned to the housing market — leaving a tremendous amount of housing stock vacant even as the numbers of the homeless grew.

Peter Spagnuolo says, “What we view today as the seemingly organic power of real estate and finance — that is, the primum mobile in determining what the city looks like — had passed over the Lower East Side for decades: no one wanted those tenements, and the entire neighborhood was just ripe for an economic turnaround — undervalued, cheap, and ready to knock down. Every block had at least one burned-out tenement or an empty lot where a building had been demolished — some had entire rows of boarded up buildings.”

Not all of those buildings and lots remained vacant, though. In the mid-1970s, groups of Lower East Side residents, many of them tenants of in-rem buildings who refused to leave their homes when their landlords disappeared, began to take these buildings over. The successes of these homesteaded buildings — in particular the 11th Street Movement, which occupied several abandoned buildings on East 11th Street — led to President Carter approving a National Urban Homesteading Demonstration Project in 1977.

In 1980, New York City established a local homesteading program to grant groups title and financial assistance to rehabilitate buildings. Howard Brandstein, executive director of the Sixth Street Community Center, who homesteaded buildings through local sweat equity groups, remembers in an interview with Sarah Ferguson, “We’d tell the city we were applying for funding, and the city would give us provisional site control. The city just didn’t care. The neighborhood wasn’t worth anything back then.” He estimates that more than thirty buildings in the Lower East Side were homesteaded.

Peter Spagnuolo

President Reagan put an end to the federal program shortly after taking office in 1981, around the same time he was tearing Carter’s solar panels off the White House roof, closing state mental hospitals, and slashing welfare and social services. New York City followed suit, ending their homesteading program in 1986, as real estate prices rose and the stock of in-rem properties once again held monetary value. However, the end of legal homesteading programs did not mean the end of the need for affordable housing in New York City. In fact, as rents rose, the impact of Reagan’s social service rollbacks became evident, and gentrification continued to transform the city, the need became that much more acute.

In “The Struggle for Space: 10 Years of Turf Battling on the Lower East Side,” Sarah Ferguson writes, “Increasing numbers of elderly and Latinos were driven from their rent-controlled units through a combination of illegal buyouts, harassment, and denial of services as landlords emptied buildings in order to drive up their resale value. Whole buildings were warehoused vacant while the streets became flooded with homeless people.”

Squatters took up the fight where the homesteaders had shown the way, occupying abandoned buildings with a more DIY approach. Whereas homesteaders, beholden to the rules of the government programs that sponsored them, hadn’t been permitted to occupy a building until the work was complete, squatters moved in and lived in the raw spaces from the beginning, putting in the time and effort to transform the buildings without the financial support or sanction of the government. They scavenged materials where they could, and employed skill-sharing, learning building skills from those with experience and then passing that knowledge along. By 1989, there were an estimated two-dozen squatted buildings in the Lower East Side.

Popular opinion assumed the squatters to be freeloaders trying to game the system, or runaway punk kids looking to trash a building and move on, or hopeless drug addicts. As court battles between the city and the squatters heated up, the city tried to paint them in the media as a group of privileged white kids from middle-class backgrounds wanting to live rent- and job-free. In reality, the squatters were a very heterogeneous group, their reasons for squatting diverse and highly personal. Far from simply looking to get something for nothing, many were motivated by the desire to create permanent low-income housing in the neighborhood.

Spagnuolo began squatting because the Lower East Side squats “just seemed safer, nurturing, and represented a chance to get out of the death-spiral of Brooklyn,” where he was caught up with drugs “and existing in a marginal fashion along the ruins of industrial north Brooklyn, right next to the river.” He had won a prestigious fellowship that was intended to fund the completion of a poetry collection, but it went instead to support his drug habit.

“Completely broke again in no time flat,” he said, “I needed somewhere to re-group.” In 1988 he moved into an empty apartment space in 541 E. 13th Street. “The squatting life made me . . . stay off street drugs so I could make a home, learn the carpentry trade, be part of the collective and the community, and get some poems done.”

Frank Morales was born and raised on the Lower East Side, in the Jacob Riis projects. He squatted as a form of direct action, first in the South Bronx and then in 1985 returning to the Lower East Side, to create low-income housing where it was sorely needed and to stave off encroaching gentrification.

“Squatting is the antidote to forced removal, a means of community self-defense as well as a means, through use of abandoned spaces, to meet the necessity of a home, and build solidarity and power on the grass roots,” Morales says.

Fly settled in the Lower East Side in 1990. Unable to afford the going rents, and needing a place to stay, she squatted out of necessity. The squats provided her with a home and a supportive community. She says, “Being involved in the whole process, learning the steps of building a habitable space, really makes you appreciate and respect your surroundings . . . The knowledge of how to build and maintain my own living space gave me a sense of calm in the midst of chaos. I figured even if the city threw us out and I lost everything, I at least now had ‘the knowledge’ and I would be able to do it all again somewhere else.”

Squatters worked individually (with help from each other) on their own spaces, but care for the building as a whole fell to the entire group. Spagnuolo recalls a major structural masonry project undertaken at his building, 541 E. 13th Street. The rear wall needed to be repointed, and the parapets and window lintels rebuilt. The squatters hired an experienced mason to teach them how to work with the materials, and then they tackled the project themselves, spending under $2,000 for a job that would have cost upwards of $20,000 to have done professionally.

In the early years, the challenges primarily came from the rough conditions of the buildings when they were first opened, but as the economic climate improved, that changed. Spagnuolo says, “The city fairly ignored the squats when I first lived there — total neglect. The police paid some attention, if only because the squats were where things happened — crime, alternative politics, disturbances, runaways, noisy punk rock parties. Even after the Tompkins riot, City Hall continued to ignore the squats, while the cops began to focus on squatters as a political and social counterforce — troublemakers, really.”

Spagnuolo recalls that things began to heat up between the squatters and the city around 1993:

When the first hints of re-development started, they were public-private joint ventures, leveraging newly available financial power from private and federal sources through these putatively non-profit groups like Enterprise Foundation and LISC. The property to be used invariably came from the city’s deep store of seized tenements and lots, which it had amassed during the dis-investment years, by means of the in-rem forfeiture program.

When capital markets boomed in the period of 1991–3, investors suddenly had a lot of money, and taking a chance on neighborhoods like this made sense again, and the money started to pour in. So the cycle of reinvestment began to transform the [neighborhood’s] demographics — bringing in a new ownership class — and the squatters were an impediment, however small, to that new juggernaut of change.

Chris Flash, editor of The Shadow, an underground newspaper published in the Lower East Side, sees a direct connection between the Tompkins Square Riot of 1988 and the city’s increased antagonism toward the squats: “The August 6, 1988, Tompkins Square Riot included many from the squatter community who objected to the gentrification and yuppification of our community. I believe that the not-so-mysterious fires at various squats that took place in the months following the riot were due to the city and NYPD desiring to remove a major element of opposition to the city’s plan to change the demographics of the Lower East Side. In most cases, fire fighters stood by doing nothing as squats continued burning.”

In the fall of 1994, five squats on E. 13th Street were targeted by the city. Democratic city council member Antonio Pagan led a plan to oust the squatters and replace their buildings with forty-one units of low-income housing, with a minimum income of $13,800 for a studio apartment (an income requirement higher than the median income of the neighborhood at that time), including the squatters who resided in the buildings. This new housing would be managed by Lower East Side Coalition Housing Development, a nonprofit directed by Pagan.

That October, the squatters, who had organized as the East 13th Street Homesteaders Coalition, took the city to court, seeking a temporary restraining order against eviction until the court could rule on their claim of ownership rights to their buildings by way of adverse possession. In November 1994, Judge Wilk of the New York State Supreme Court granted the restraining order.

On April 20, 1995, the Department of Buildings issued a vacate order for two of the buildings — 541 and 545 E. 13th Street — as well as the first floor of 539 E. 13th Street, claiming there was danger of imminent collapse. This followed two walk-through inspections by city inspectors who testified that conditions posed “imminent danger to the safety and life of the occupants from building collapse, and list troubles such as deteriorated joists, buckling walls, sagging floors, and disintegrating window lintels.”

These claims were refuted by experts brought in by the squatters. Architect Jim Morgan, who inspected the buildings in question, stated in a letter to the editor in the New York Times that the subsequent eviction “was based on demonstrably false pretext. Records of the New York State Supreme Court trial in progress on the matter clearly show that there is absolutely no danger of those buildings collapsing — by the admission of city building department officials, as well as testimony of other licensed professionals “including myself).”

Judge Wilk ruled in favor of the squatters, ordering that the city make necessary repairs to the buildings without removing the residents.

That judgment was overturned on appeal on May 25 1995, and on May 30, the long-anticipated eviction arrived. The eviction was carried out with massive militaristic force, costing an estimated $1 million. Riot police, swat teams, snipers, police helicopters, and — most outlandishly and unbelievably — an armored tank were used to evict forty people from two buildings they’d called home for years.

Chris Flash had a front-row view of the spectacle.

I was present the night before the evictions that would take place the following day, as announced by the city. That night, many of the 13th Street squatters were busy removing their belongings while others prepared for the invasion, booby-trapping buildings with large items and welding apartment doors shut and erecting barricades on the street, including an overturned abandoned car on which gasoline was poured. A passing cop car stopped and upon smelling the gas, quickly left. I likened the atmosphere to the Battle of Berlin, in which residents were frantically preparing for the coming Russian invasion at the end of World War II.

I stayed up all night with the defenders [squatters and supporters] as the barricades were manned by a growing number of people. In the early morning hours, cops stayed away, as they did not have the manpower to launch their assault. But as the hours wore on, by late morning, it was clear that they had simply been biding their time, waiting for us to get weary as they built up their forces, including cops along 14th Street, on the rooftops of surrounding buildings on 13th Street and formations on 13th Street on both sides of the squats. For theatrical effect, they even brought in a mini tank that they used to push the overturned car out of the way. An NYPD helicopter hovered overhead, but it made a fast retreat after a few firework rockets were shot in its direction.

A line of defenders blocked the fronts of the 13th Street squats as cops advanced. Most were removed — I don’t remember them all being arrested, though some were. At one point, a police commander ordered that tear gas be thrown into the buildings, but activist attorney Stanley Cohen, who was on the scene, informed him that the apartments had been welded shut with residents inside, leading the cop to cancel the order.

As defenders were removed, I saw special squads of cops with mini Sawz-Alls that they used to cut open the front doors of the squats so that other cops could perform raids.

I asked Peter Spagnuolo about his personal experience of that eviction from the inside of one of the buildings:

Apocalyptic. I had been the legal organizer for the adverse possession lawsuit — this was a tremendous undertaking, not met with universal acclaim, and I had spent nearly all my time for the previous year doing little else — trying to organize the extremely diverse residents of 13th Street into a collective ready for fighting in the courts and the street simultaneously.

The litigation was a bold course in which the squatters had taken pre-emptive action against the city, to assert their claim to the buildings against those of the redevelopment groups — so my space in 541 was sort of the nerve center for organizing and maintaining our legal status. The case was high profile, and when the city moved to moot out the judge’s ruling by declaring a safety emergency, we had anticipated it, and we were ready. For the two days leading up to the eviction, groups of squatters from other houses in the Lower East Side had been coming over at all hours to build defenses — it was a collective effort — while still others helped people move their valuables to safe locations.

It was a theater of insurgency, complete with The Clash blasting from somebody’s speakers on the fire escape while punks in the street turned over a car. I packed my library, my manuscripts, a few other things, and got that stuff out of there — there was a girl up the block, later to be my wife, who packed my shit into her tiny studio apartment (she supplied the bed sheets from which we made the HOME SWEET HOME banners). Then I was welded into my home in the early morning hours, and we all just waited.

After they arrested all the people in the street, they cut through the welds on the door with gasoline-powered grinders, then it took them another two or three hours to get past the first landing, which had been covered with plywood, two refrigerators turned on their backs and filled with water — about 1,000 lbs. of water.  Then another hour to get to my floor. The fire escapes were literally filled with bicycles from the bike shop, making them man-traps, completely unpassable, so that took them forever, and I watched a lot of their progress from my windows. Then they got to my apartment door, and had to grind off the welds, and that was it. Waves of sadness poured over me — even though I had plenty of time to prepare for the end, when it came, it was like being suffocated.

The five targeted buildings on E. 13th were now behind police barricades, with three of them vacant. Rather than demoralize the squatters, that May 30 eviction inspired stronger resistance. It was followed by a summer of actions.

“Overwhelming military force had been brought,” Spagnuolo says. “This was a wake-up call for everyone to take organizing seriously. You couldn’t be an ‘a-political’ squatter: the radical essence of squatting could no longer be denied by anyone, and slacking on the politics could be fatal to any given house. And the next private group/capital fund re-development project was already in the pipeline, targeting the next squat, at 5th Street. So the writing was on the wall.”

That June, about 100 squatters (carrying a half-sized cardboard tank dubbed “Little Rudy”) led a march, bringing delegates and attendees of a Brecht Forum conference to the block, where there was conflict with the police and many arrests. On July 4 — Independence Day — squatters symbolically retook two of the buildings on E. 13th. They held the buildings for twelve hours, forcing the police to mobilize helicopters and SWAT teams, and then escaped. When the police broke in, they found no one in the buildings.

The NYPD subsequently closed the entire block, with a command station at Avenue B and ID checkpoints at A and B. This lasted for about six months, with as many as two-dozen officers on permanent patrol there.

More evictions on E. 13th followed, with the last of the residents evicted in August 1996.

Fly recalls: “The morning of the final eviction of the 13th Street squats the police and fire department showed up at the door of my building on E. 7th Street for a ‘surprise inspection.’ I thought we were being evicted. I had been up all night at 13th Street doing recon and calling in reports to our pirate radio station (Steal This Radio 88.7 FM). I had just fallen asleep when the FDNY broke into my house at around 8 a.m. They took my front door off its hinges. Thankfully they just gave us a list of violations and did not evict us that day. I really think that was an intimidation tactic. It was extremely nerve-wracking. Losing the 13th Street community of squats was very sad but it really put a fire under our butts to work harder to keep the remaining buildings.”

Indeed, many who still live in the last remaining Lower East Side squats — eleven buildings that began a process of legalization in 2002 — attribute their buildings’ survival to the resistance efforts of those who fought for the 13th Street squats. Morales says, “I would say that 13th Street was the turning point in favor of and which lead to our continual and present occupation of our buildings. In a war of attrition, 13th Street was their Waterloo. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the determined resistance of the 13th Street squatters and the neighborhood-wide mobilization that confronted the greed machine.”

The legalization of eleven remaining squats has been a slow, ongoing process. Following the rash of evictions in 1995 and 1996, some squatters, particularly a group of residents from 377 E. 10th Street, reached out to HPD to open lines of communication, requesting that title to the squats be transferred from the city to the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), a nonprofit initially formed to support the participants of the 1970s homesteading programs. In the final days of the Giuliani administration, this came to pass. It was determined that the titles for the remaining eleven squats would transfer to UHAB; UHAB, in turn, would oversee the conversion of those buildings into low-income, limited-equity co-ops. And so the squatters would get to remain in their homes, becoming homeowners in the eyes of the law.

A victory for the squatters? Perhaps. But Giuliani had not had a sudden change of heart. By settling with the squatters in this way, the city avoided the very real possibility of losing an adverse possession claim in court, which would have established a precedent that could have meant the city losing control of many more than those eleven buildings on the Lower East Side.

Also, by legalizing the squats and making the squatters homeowners, the city effectively neutralized their political threat. Not only are the remaining squatters now part of the real estate market, but a requirement of the deal with UHAB was the taking on of debt.

Chris Flash says, “The way I see it, as they were acquired by the city of New York from owners who either abandoned them and/or failed to pay real estate taxes owed, the squats had no debt attached to them. That means that the residents of each building could use their monthly dues and their own labor to fix their buildings at no cost to taxpayers and their living expenses would be minimal. Under the UHAB deal, UHAB got banks to make loans on the squat buildings in order to fund repairs and renovations in those buildings by UHAB contractors. The squatters would then have to pay a proportionate amount of the monthly mortgage payment on each building in order to service the debt on their building.”

On the other hand, by taking and holding the buildings all the way through to legalization, the remaining squatters have achieved what was for many their ultimate goal and reason for squatting: to create permanent low-income housing on the Lower East Side. They have done precisely that.

I asked Frank Morales, who continues to live in his squat building, which is currently in the process of legalization, if the deal was a victory for the city or the squats. He said, “Neither. But probably more for us than for them. It’s always some of this and some of that. The World Bank model of ‘developing’ our buildings and preparing for title transfer requires the incurring of debt, so in that regard it’s part of the same old game. Slow motion gentrification, get us in debt, hope we go away. As far as the bigger picture, though: Squatters seized buildings in the most contentious neighborhood in NYC in the heated battle against speculation and gentrification on the Lower East Side and won! We held our buildings amidst the yuppie onslaught and are still in them, and are still affordable, still a living model for alternative ways.”

Peter Spagnuolo

Fly’s building has completed the process, the residents taking ownership from UHAB in 2010. They are now an HDFC building (Housing Development Fund Corporation), which is a category of low-income co-op in New York City. She sees the deal as a net positive.

“We did have to take out a significant loan in order to get our building up to code, which included some very large projects such as installing a central heating system. There were a lot of things that had to be contracted out to licensed companies, a lot of hoops to jump through and inspections to pass. It’s not fun having to follow so many rules and regulations, some of which seem ridiculous and just cost money. But the upside is that we now own our apartments so we do have that equity. Our building has a debt, but as individual shareholders we have the acquired value of our apartments.

“Of course we are limited in our Regulatory Agreement on things like re-sale: we can’t get market rate if we sell our apartments, and we would have to sell to someone who meets low-income requirements (and nobody is planning to sell anytime soon), but we do have a sense of security that we did not have before and that is worth a lot. We are not having to build barricades and spend sleepless nights worrying about impending eviction.”

As I walked through Tompkins Square Park to Fly’s apartment on E. 7th that October day, I tried to see my old home through the eyes of a newcomer. I wondered if someone who hadn’t been there in the eighties and nineties could even imagine that once very real threat of eviction. The character of the neighborhood has been so altered by gentrification, the friction that once made the place buzz smoothed over by the influx of money that brought the bars, the restaurants, the new residents willing to pay an extreme premium for their tiny apartments in former tenements.

The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space, which opened in the storefront of C Squat on Avenue C between 9th and 10th Streets in December 2012, works to celebrate and educate about the history of grassroots activism in the Lower East Side, particularly squats and community gardens. The fact of its very existence is striking. It is a history museum inside a now-legalized squat — the infamous C-Squat, scene to some of the most riotous punk shows of the era. The museum (and C-Squat) is surrounded by cafes and restaurants. C-Squat, its THIS LAND IS OURS sign still proudly displayed from the fire escape, seems a remnant of another time, the presence of a museum documenting the activism of the past a pointed reminder of the changes that have swept through since the days when that sign was first hung.

Spagnuolo, now the father of two, left the squats before the legalization deal began. The troubles that brought him to the squats long behind him, he’s an accomplished poet, author of several chapbooks and with impressive publication credits to his name.

“I moved to Greenpoint in 1998,” he says, “into a derelict rag factory building on the waterfront, paying rent, but in a kind of dilapidated abandoned space, which I was able to build out any way I wanted, in the empowered-nesting instinct that seems to characterize the squatter mindset. I can see the old neighborhood from where I’m sitting.”

Gentrification followed him across the river. He’s now embroiled in what he acknowledges is a losing battle against the over-development of Greenpoint, glass high-rise condo buildings of multimillion-dollar units, slated to line the riverfront. When we speak of New York, the conversation invariably turns to how I got out and how he wishes he could.

Change is a constant in New York, and the New York that made the squats possible is long gone. But regardless of how the legalization of the remaining buildings is viewed, the historical importance of the squatters’ work is undeniable. Jerry the Peddler says of his fellow squatters, in the documentary Captured, “The New York City squatters held more land, longer, than any other Leftist group anywhere in the United States.”

Today we find ourselves again faced with a housing crisis in the United States. Homelessness is on the rise, with 50,000 people living on the street in New York, the highest number since the 1980s. Per the 2013 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report, on a single night in January 2013, an estimated 610,042 people were found to be homeless in the United States. Meanwhile, Amnesty International estimates that there are five foreclosed homes for every homeless person in the United States.

I asked Morales if squatting was still a viable form of direct action, if it could be used in response to the foreclosure crisis. He said it’s “more viable and necessary now then ever. Through the mass occupation of foreclosed property, the people secure the housing they need — and just as importantly, they launch a counterblow to the banks.”

In Detroit, for example, once a thriving industrial town now faced with the same fiscal crisis and urban disinvestment that blighted the New York of the 1970s, there are nearly 80,000 vacant buildings. It isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine people moving into some of those abandoned properties and rehabilitating them, and subsequently the neighborhoods, and then the city itself.

What if the homesteading programs of the 1970s were revived to make it possible for people in need of housing to lay claim to these buildings and make homes of them? What would that mean for places like Detroit, or Phoenix, or Tampa — places where the bursting of the housing bubble was felt most acutely, places where predatory lending hit the hardest. Or, as with Detroit, for floundering industrial cities like Albany, New York, which currently has more than 800 abandoned buildings.

The Lower East Side squatters were as flawed and damaged and selfish as any of us. Yet on their best days, they were braver and more heroic than most of us. They struggled and fought and negotiated and formed collectives. They worked together, building a community of resistance. There are lessons for us in their struggle, experience to draw on in response to where we find ourselves in this nation. So many without homes, so many homes sitting empty. I refuse to come away from the stories of the squats with anything less than hope.