Former squatters vacate homes for renovations

The troubled former squat at 544 E. 13th St., above, will be fixed up by a private developer under the city’s plan.  File photo by Jefferson Siegel
The troubled former squat at 544 E. 13th St., above, will be fixed up by a private developer under the city’s plan. File photo by Jefferson Siegel

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  The city is quietly moving ahead with a plan to renovate two former East Village squats whose residents and a nonprofit housing group have been unable to accomplish the feat.

Under the plan, the denizens of the two tenements — 544 E. 13th St. and 377 E. 10th St. — were supposed to have vacated the buildings by this Wed., Oct. 7. An earlier vacate date of Sept. 30 was extended one week.

According to the city, the renovations will last two years, after which the former squatters will be allowed to return and buy their units at a low, insider’s price.

Meanwhile, a private developer, BFC Partners, led by principal Donald Capoccia, will rehab the two buildings as affordable housing, in return for which BFC will get development rights in the form of an “inclusionary housing” bonus — or F.A.R. (floor area ratio) — usable to build market-rate housing elsewhere nearby.

The city is temporarily offering the former squatters units in Stuyvesant Town, for which they would pay a discounted rent — not to exceed 30 percent of 30 percent of area median income. The developer will cover the balance of the rent.

But many of the tenants are dispersing farther afield, to Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia and elsewhere, where they have better deals for the next couple of years.

In 2002, ending years of fractious squatter evictions, the city sold 11 remaining East Village squats for $1 each to the squatters, under a deal brokered by the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, or UHAB. Under this deal, the squatters were required to bring the tenements up to the city building code, after which they would become affordable co-ops, and the former squatters — now redubbed “homesteaders” — could buy their units at a low price.

But while the other East Village squats steadily moved toward conversion, these two have stalled, and at least one, 544 E. 13th St., was facing imminent foreclosure. That building has been riven by a feud between two factions, one of them led by Isabel Celeste Dawson, the mother of actress Rosario Dawson, who grew up in the building.

The Dawson clan — Isabel, her brother Nicky Scott, Isabel’s ex-husband Greg Dawson, and son Clay — will reportedly get four units in the renovated building.

The lead agency on the project for the two squats is the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

In a statement to The Villager, an H.P.D. spokesperson said: “After these two East Village buildings have languished for many years, the city has come up with a plan working with UHAB to bring them back from the brink and provide affordable homeownership in an increasingly expensive neighborhood. If the two properties had been allowed to foreclose, they could have been sold and converted to market-rate units. So this is a great outcome for the buildings’ tenants, who will not only see their homes rehabilitated, but will benefit from permanent affordability under the city’s Inclusionary Zoning program.”

The buildings are currently owned by UHAB. Specifically, UHAB and BFC Partners have jointly applied for H.P.D. financing for the project through the Participation Loan Program. BFC Partners has agreed to pay off the liens on both properties.

The renovations will be financed with a mix of private debt and city funds, according to H.P.D. BFC will sell the inclusionary housing bonus to another developer, and use these bonus proceeds to pay off the private first mortgage.

Although two additional city-owned East Village buildings — not former squats — had earlier been included in this plan, the scheme now only involves the two former squats. These two other buildings are located on the east side of Avenue A between E. 12th and 13th Sts., and on E. 12th St. next to the children’s playground near Avenue B.

 The current residents will be allowed to buy their units for $2,500 — H.P.D.’s standard insider price for co-op homeownership — provided they meet established criteria, including income restrictions and homeownership training. To preserve the units’ long-term affordability, their resale price will be restricted in perpetuity.

As for how the inclusionary housing bonus will work, the H.P.D. spokesperson said, it “depends on where the developer sells, and it is up to the developer to privately negotiate a price per square foot.”

She said, however, the bonus must be used within Community Board 3, or within a half-mile of the site in an adjacent community board.

As for exactly how much new F.A.R. for development this deal will translate into, the spokesperson explained, “The bonus ratio is determined by the zoning of the receiving site — which is where the bonus is used.”

Asked for examples, she did not elaborate.

Frank Morales, a leader in the East Village’s squatter movement in the 1980s and ’90s, has a unit in the E. 10th St. building. He said their problem wasn’t feuding factions. A fire that struck the former squat set them back, however.

“It just took time to get our building accomplished, due mostly to the fire in ’02, which made our renovation more costly than the others,” he said. “An important point is that we — the residents of No. 377 — have over the last decade and a half cooperated with all that UHAB, H.P.D., the mayor et al. have asked — who have in recent years threatened foreclosure. So don’t blame us for the time it took. At the end of the day, we are looking to maintain control of our homes, homes we made and managed for ourselves via the blood, sweat, time, tears and cash we invested!”

Dragan Vlad said he originally “opened up” the E. 10th St. squat when it was a vacant building and its windows and doors sealed shut with cinderblocks. He said the city will hire its own management for the two renovated buildings, which will bring them under better control.

In October 2014, as first reported by The Villager, Juan Scott, then 26, a cousin of the Dawsons’ who had been staying at 544 E. 13th St. since that summer, was arrested and charged with the attempted rape of a Stuy Town woman, plus two other sexual assaults in the East Village.

Meanwhile, in May 2013, Manuel Salazar, then 21, a resident of 377 E. 10th St., was arrested there for criminal possession of two semi-automatic guns, plus intent to sell a controlled substance for having five pounds of pot, two “large” bags of hallucinogenic mushrooms and 44 tablets of Xanax, as well as $13,000 in cash.

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