By Leila Roos
Q&A with Frank Morales
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Housing activist Frank Morales is an advocate of “the direct action approach,” which is “securing a place to live by seizing, renovating and defending it.” Morales, 65, began squatting in the South Bronx during the urban decay of the late ’70s, when hundreds of buildings were left to ruin. He later moved to the Lower East Side, forming a loose community with fellow squatters as they worked to rebuild abandoned properties.
Morales estimates that at the height of the movement, there were 500 people in close to 30 buildings. But decades of all-out war with “the powers that be,” left just 12 squats standing. In 2002, 11 of those squats — known by names like “Umbrella House” and “Serenity” or only the address — were legalized. Although the movement has changed with the times, Morales says squatting in New York City is far from over — it’s the start of a new era.
What did the squats look like when you got started on them?
They were literally vacant — boarded-up, cinder blocked-up, sealed-up.
How were you able to get building access?
It’s not rocket science — you take a bolt cutter and a sledgehammer and just go in.
What was squatting in the Lower East Side like?
We spontaneously occupied vacant buildings, sharing ideas and skills. Soon after, the powers that be caught on to what we were doing, but instead of praising us for saving these buildings, they sent the cops to try and dislodge us.
How did you organize to defend yourselves?
Eviction Watch: We all agreed to come out for each other. It would be 5:30 in the morning, and you’d get the call: “Hey, they’re surrounding 6th Street!” There could be hundreds of riot cops, helicopters, snipers in the windows — it was insane! We’d go and put out whatever counterpressure we could.
What are some misperceptions about squatters that you can clear up?
That we’re druggies, that we jump the line for housing. Public housing has a waiting list in the hundreds of thousands, and it’s been that way for decades. Unlike private- or city-run properties, we can deal with the problem through direct action. We change the locks and say you’re out.
What are the grounds for kicking someone out of a squat?
Drug dealing, violence against your neighbor and stealing from your neighbor are the three evictable offenses. Our main rule is that everyone living and working together defines the rules.
If everyone is expected to help rebuild, how can those without the ability contribute?
Rosemary was 70 years old when she squatted with us. She would cook up soup during the workday and keep us entertained. She was a great chatterer and everyone loved her.
Beyond political or practical motives, why should someone choose to squat?
After a while, it dawns on you: if your roof and food are taken care of, you don’t really need a whole lot of money. It’s like, “Oh wow, I don’t have to pay this rent. I don’t need to do that job anymore. I could actually save the money and take another course, or open up this room as a workspace for my art.”
Some of the Lower East Side squats have been legalized. What happened?
Before leaving office, Giuliani transferred the title of eleven squats to UHAB — the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board — ostensibly to manage us and secure loans, before turning the buildings into low-income co-ops. “Now you own the building, and here’s your bill.” It’s slow-motion gentrification: Folks who had been paying $150 a month now have a mortgage, which could translate to $500, $600, $800 a month.
Can they still be considered squats, then?
They’re no longer squats in the sense that they’re legal now, but they’re still self-managed.
What’s it like to squat here today?
There are three times more vacant spaces in New York City than homeless people. There’s no morally defensible reason for us not to go in. But with less vacant city-owned property, the new venues are smaller, the groups are smaller, and that brings about different approaches.
Who would benefit from squatting?
The needs of the homeless aren’t being met. Students can’t afford a place to live. The so-called working people spend half their income [on rent].
Is it possible for squatters and city officials to work together toward a housing solution?
Without any heat from the street, things are never going to change. So while squatters take pressure off the government to provide housing, they also put pressure on the government to do the right thing.
How did you end up at the forefront of the movement?
I have always been very committed to the idea and politics of squatting, of working collectively and exerting a certain creativity in vacant spaces.
What are your goals for the next generation of squatters?
I do workshops on “the ABCs of squatting,” with the aim of getting people to organize, collectively move into these spaces, renovate and defend them together.
What happens after a building is rebuilt?
Squatting is not about getting into a space and closing the door. It’s the base upon which we can create stable homes, communities and neighborhoods to then collectively organize and meet the bigger challenges.
In addition to his work as a housing activist, Morales is an Episcopal priest and professor at the New School. He lives in a 10th Street squat.
HISTORIC SQUATTERS OF THE LOWER EAST SIDE
Peter Spagnuolo is a poet who led the mid-1990s legal battle for the 13th Street squats, which underwent a militaristic eviction. Spagnuolo now lives in Brooklyn.
Jerry the Peddler is a gardener who used to peddle comic books. He now sells buttons bearing a political message. Jerry lives in C-Squat.
Nigel Clayton is a DJ renowned for his party apartment, “The Clayton Ranch.” Following a court case with UHAB, Clayton moved out of Serenity, where he had lived for 22 years.
George Marco is an electrician and performance artist who specializes in fire shows: breathing, spinning and eating fire. Marco lives in a squat on 10th street.
Leila Roos is a freelance writer and editor currently studying at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.