By COLIN MOYNIHAN JULY 17, 2015
Umbrella House has come a long way from the late 1980s, when a handful of squatters broke into what was then an abandoned city-owned tenement house and claimed it as their home. Today, most of the early homesteaders remain and the building has been converted into a co-op that operates like many others, though with a more utopian and collectivist ethos.
On a recent afternoon Parker Pracjek, a college administrator and adjunct professor who has lived in Umbrella House for a decade, was on the roof, discussing the building’s newest undertaking: an 820-square-foot vegetable garden tended by volunteers. The garden provides fresh produce and herbs for the 32 or so inhabitants of the 18 apartments, as well as a respite from some of the rigors of city life.
“After a morning spent in a piece of nature, I just might be able to face the concrete and the throngs of people below,” Ms. Pracjek said. “We don’t always think about the grounding or sanity that comes from picking one’s own meal from a garden.”
Thirteen years ago, the City of New York ended years of conflict with the squatters of the East Village by agreeing to give them 11 buildings they had taken over. The deal included Umbrella House, so named by residents who imagined it might function as a central hub for housing activists.
Since the transfer, hundreds of squatters in various buildings have gradually made the transition from outlaw homesteaders to shareholders in strictly regulated co-ops that are subject to rules limiting both the income of buyers and the profit that sellers can earn.
Like residents of any co-op, those living in Umbrella House, at 21-23 Avenue C, between East Second and East Third Streets, have elected board members to preside over meetings, arrange the rental of commercial storefronts and review applications from potential purchasers. But at Umbrella House, which is still occupied by people who believe firmly that housing should not be defined by profit, each of those tasks is handled differently from how it might be in a more conventional co-op building.
There is, for instance, the way that new residents are selected.
From Park Avenue to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, co-op board interviews are feared ordeals in which prospective buyers are grilled about employment, investments and sometimes even where a candidate’s child goes to kindergarten. These boards typically hand down decisions by fiat with little in the way of transparency. And the prospect of appearing before them can inspire such dread that some real estate brokers instruct aspiring buyers before an interview the same way that a trial lawyer might prepare a witness for cross-examination.
At Umbrella House, on the other hand, there has never been a sale involving a broker. Potential residents are chosen from a list of friends, longtime Lower East Side dwellers or people whose lives and interests have overlapped somehow with those of existing shareholders. In many ways, candidates are vetted by Umbrella House just as carefully as they would be by other co-ops, but interviews are likely to focus more on community organizing than a credit score. All residents may play a role in meeting candidates and participating in a weighted vote, choosing up to five people in order of preference. The one with the highest vote total is then selected.
As part of the legalization arrangement, the deed to Umbrella House was transferred from the city for a dollar. The building is now operated as a limited equity co-op and in accordance with Housing Development Fund Corporation rules, residents said. An agreement with the city specifies that buyers can earn no more than 120 percent of the median area income, which translates to about $72,000 for a single person and about $93,000 for a family of three.
There is a 10 percent flip tax on sales, and prices are capped but rise incrementally each year. Maintenance fees also rise annually, by 2 percent. These days, a two-bedroom apartment at Umbrella House goes for $161,000 with a monthly maintenance fee of $550. The building has three studios, four one-bedrooms, nine two-bedrooms and two three-bedrooms.
Steven Ashmore, an artist who was among those who used sledgehammers to enter the building in 1988, said that keeping Umbrella House affordable as the neighborhood grows ever more expensive was more important than selling for market-rate prices.
“We earned it, but it was also a gift,” Mr. Ashmore said of the building while sitting in his sixth-floor apartment. “Without the premise that this was about something bigger than us, the deal with the city probably wouldn’t have happened and probably shouldn’t have happened.”
Although the cost of living in Umbrella House is significantly lower than in many other East Village co-ops, not everyone would be a good fit there. The building still has a strong activist tilt and some familiarity with that world is valued. Shareholders see the building as a community and decisions are made using a system called “consensus minus one,” which strives for near unanimity. If only a single person objects to an initiative that otherwise has support, it may still go forward. But if two object, the idea is tabled.
In 2002, the City of New York gave possession of Umbrella House to the Urban Homesteaders Assistance Board, a nonprofit organization that served as a transitional owner. Umbrella House members became shareholders, receiving the deed to the building in 2010 after performing required repairs
The building sold its first apartment that year to Miguel Valderrama, an immigrant from Colombia who works as a freelance lighting rigger for theatrical productions and concerts, and who paid $45,000 for a 300-square-foot studio. Before buying, Mr. Valderrama had been a roommate of a longtime resident and had participated in building tasks like shoveling snow and removing debris from the basement. Three other apartments have turned over since then.
Mr. Valderrama said that having an affordable apartment allowed him to pursue work that he cared about, adding that he valued the democratic way the building is run.
“Your voice counts for something here,” he said. “We’re making decisions together.”
The very first squatters to occupy Umbrella House, a tenement built around 1900, were convinced that the city was warehousing empty buildings while private landlords profited. There were few places more hospitable to that perspective than the East Village, which seemed to be a province in perpetual revolt.
Mr. Ashmore and his comrades smashed through a cinderblock-filled window at Umbrella House just a few months after the Tompkins Square melee pitted raucous protesters objecting to a curfew in the park against hundreds of police officers, including some who covered their badge numbers while beating people with batons.
Back then, entire blocks east of the park consisted mainly of rubble and empty, decaying tenements that had fallen into city receivership because of unpaid water bills or taxes. It was a forbidding landscape where drug users lined up on sidewalks to buy heroin and buildings sometimes caught fire and burned all night, dotting the horizon with fingers of flame. But where many people saw blight, the squatters saw opportunity.
In 1988, the roof of Umbrella House was punctured by holes, giving another meaning to the name squatters had bestowed upon the building. Few windows had glass panes and rain and wind whipped through the halls. Entire flights of stairs in the walk-up building had been shattered and the squatters moved between floors on fire escapes.
Over the years the building’s inhabitants slowly made repairs. They rebuilt staircases, installed joists salvaged from other buildings and fixed a drain line so that they could have running water, work that drew support from some of their neighbors.
But they also had detractors. Proponents of gentrification, developers and people running nonprofit housing organizations that vied for control of city-owned buildings saw squatters as raffish obstacles. To city officials they were little more than criminal trespassers. Community board meetings occasionally became unruly as squatters confronted critics. And the police sometimes cleared out buildings by force. One particularly memorable episode came in 1995 when phalanxes of officers equipped with helmets, shields and an armored vehicle ousted squatters from two tenements on East 13th Street.
Umbrella House’s closest call came a year or so after the squatters moved in, when a tenement house next door collapsed and police officers evacuated nearby buildings. About half a dozen people barricaded themselves inside Umbrella House, fearing that if they left they would never be allowed back. At one point a metal claw attached to a mobile excavator that was being used to take down the collapsed building knocked into the side of Umbrella House. Those inside stood on fire escapes and draped banners across the front of the building in an effort to prevent further damage.
“It was a standoff,” said Lawrence Van Abbema, an artist and Umbrella House resident who took part in the demonstration. “In the end, they went back to demolition, but used a guy with a crowbar instead of that machine.”
Toward the end of the 1990s, city officials began exploring ways to make peace with the squatters. As part of the resulting arrangement, the century-old tenements they occupied had to be brought up to code. At Umbrella House, that involved masonry work, roof repairs and the installation of a heating system, among other things, said Tauno Biltsted, who has served as the building’s president and has lived in the East Village since he was a teenager.
Residents financed the repairs with weatherization grants and an $800,000 loan from the National Cooperative Bank, Mr. Biltsted said, adding that the building is paying back that loan at the rate of about $5,000 per month, with an additional $2,000 a month going into escrow accounts to establish two reserve funds and a fund for major repairs.
Umbrella House residents had already done extensive work on individual apartments before the agreement with the city and during the conversion phase. People put up sheet rock on their walls and were expected to complete their own bathrooms and kitchens. Most did so, Mr. Biltsted said, adding that the building helped in some instances.
Over the years Umbrella House has lost cherished gathering space. The empty lot next door that was home to a garden is now the site of a six-story building with duplex apartments. For years, two ground-floor common areas were used for art shows and performances by squatter bands with names like Hooverville. But to keep maintenance low, Umbrella House decided in 2007 to turn those spaces into commercial storefronts and began looking for local businesses to move in rather than outsiders that might pay more. The tenants, both already established on the block, are a barbershop, which pays $5,000 a month, and a Spanish-language financial services store, which pays $2,000.
The surrender of the common areas is part of what made the roof garden a popular project. In 2012, residents voted to spend about $150,000 to create a garden area built upon 14-by-6-inch steel beams and topped by a mixture of gravel and soil. Their aim was to create a source of vegetables while stepping outside of the normal channels of food production and commerce.
The first planting was this spring and so far the garden has produced zucchini, tomatoes, okra, broccoli, spinach, beets, peas, eggplant, lettuce and Swiss chard, among other vegetables. A chalkboard on the ground floor lists what is ripe for the picking. And Ms. Pracjek, a trained herbalist, has formed what she calls the Umbrella House Apothecary, sharing extracts she has made of hyssop and calendula from the roof garden.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, several Umbrella House residents gathered for a garden workday. Mr. Ashmore sprayed a mixture of baking soda, aspirin and other ingredients on tomato and zucchini leaves suffering from blight. Ms. Pracjek put some bamboo stakes in the ground to guide string bean stalks. Another resident, Geanme Marin, helped lug bags of organic soil.
Over the next few hours the group worked at various tasks. Mr. Biltsted and Mr. Valderrama measured an area next to the roof bulkhead, then went downstairs to cut lengths of cedar to build a compost bin that would go there. Upstairs the sun beat down and Ms. Pracjek offered fellow gardeners iced tea made with roof-grown chamomile and lemon balm.
Eventually, the day’s work was finished and those on the roof prepared to descend. Ms. Marin filled a basket with tomatoes, basil and broccoli, announcing as she walked downstairs, “Now I am ready to make dinner.”
A version of this article appears in print on July 19, 2015, on Page RE1 of the New York edition with the headline: An Unfolding Story