What is Urban Homesteading?

Introduction to Urban Homesteading and our work when conducting the interviews and surveys
What is Urban Homesteading?
Why do we need it?
How do we get it!
by Frank Morales
The concept of urban homesteading is fairly simple. First and foremost, it
is a way for low-income people to acquire an affordable home through the
trading of “sweat equity” for the financial equity they may lack. It is
also a means to derive good use – “use value” from properties that
presently lie dormant, specifically the thousands of properties currently
sitting vacant throughout New York City.
Urban homesteading involves transferring public and privately owned,
abandoned and vacant property to qualifying individuals or families in
exchange for commitments to repair, occupy and maintain the property, with
the potential for owning that property as an affordable “low-income” coop
or as part of a wider community land trust arrangement.
The program was initiated in 1974 when the Federal Government enacted the
Housing and Community Development Act (Pub.L. 93-383, 88 Stat. 633). The
act included Section 810, Urban Homesteading (12 USC 1706e), which
authorized “the transfer, without payment, of property … for use in an
urban homestead program.” In other words, it authorized making available
vacant properties to low-income people for rehabilitation into homes,
homes that they could afford, that they worked on themselves.
From 1976 to 1980 the New York City “Sweat Equity Program,” reacting to
calls for the rehabilitation of abandoned buildings and the growing demand
for low-income housing, sought to facilitate transfer of ownership of city
owned housing to low and moderate income people by way of “sweat equity.”
In exchange for labor performed by prospective residents, the city offered
one percent interest rates on 30-year mortgages for the gut rehabilitation
of city-owned abandoned buildings. Unfortunately, despite positive support
from then President Jimmy Carter, along with financing from four major New
York banks, by 1980 the program was defunct.
But it wasn’t defunct for long! In 1980 the New York City Department of
Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) initiated an Urban Homesteading
Program as a response to residents illegally inhabiting vacant buildings
(squatting) in poor and red-lined neighborhoods. At the time, the program
granted up to $10,000 per unit to tenants willing to inhabit and
simultaneously renovate vacant city-owned buildings. Participants
qualified for the program through a Request For Proposal process. After
renovation, HPD sold the buildings to the residents for $250 per apartment
with the stipulation that the building operate as a Housing Development
Fund Corporation (HDFC) under Article XI laws, which included limited
equity on resale profits. The classification as an HDFC ensured building
affordability for 40 years. In 1991, the Urban Homesteading Program was
repealed by order of then Mayor Ed Koch, effective Oct. 1, 1991.
Currently, there are some 1500 HDFCs in NYC.
Meanwhile, according to HPD, “in 2011, the number of vacant available
rental units (in NYC) was 68,000, while the number of vacant units
available for sale was 31,000.  At the same time, the number of vacant
units not available for sale or rent was 164,000 … the highest since
1965.” Suffice to say, that’s a lot of vacant space that could house the
thousands of homeless and working class families in need of an affordable
home if only some means could be devised of legally accessing this vacant
housing stock spread throughout this city.
That is what the reinstating and municipal re-institutionalization of an
urban homesteading program is all about. It can offer a means of accessing
this massive stock of vacant property, a way to alleviate the shortage of
low-income housing, a way to alleviate the suffering and fulfill the
requirements of justice for those who too have a right to this city, a
right to rehabilitate this city in the interests of the 99%!
How can this come about? Through the mobilization of public power and
knowledge geared towards the just use of vacant public and private
property. Such a public power, informed and armed with the specific means
and models to do so, can erect a novel 21st century NYC Urban Homesteading
Program geared for those truly in need. This is what we intend to do! The
New School Design and Urban Ecologies Department students and staff are
formulating such a model, seeking support, input and inspiration from
interested members of the community, stake-holders, politicians,
academics, activists and those willing to work for a home they can afford.
Won’t you join us?