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Housing Shortage Prompts Squatters to Rehabilitate Buildings

Low-cost housing continues to disappear as city's population of young professionals grows. NEW YORK CITY

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NEW YORK is a city of ironies. It has enormous numbers of homeless people - and equal numbers of empty apartments. Upward of 50,000 people are without permanent shelter, and countless tens of thousands live doubled or tripled up in crowded apartments. Yet New York City owns more than 5,000 empty buildings, which if fixed up, could eliminate the shortage.

The city has an ambitious program to rehabilitate the buildings, many of which the owners abandoned or lost for nonpayment of taxes. Although officials say they are moving as fast as possible, housing experts say it will be a very long time before most homeless New Yorkers can expect a place of their own.

Now, an increasing number of citizens are taking matters into their own hands. They are moving into the shuttered structures, repairing them and making homes for themselves, especially on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where one of the largest concentrations of city-owned abandoned buildings lies.

Technically, what they are doing is illegal. But the squatters don't see the harm. ``If squatting is illegal, it's like taking bread from a restaurant's garbage,'' says one longtime squatter, Will Sales.

What is most striking about the squatters is their self-sufficiency. They want nothing from the government, they say, other than to be left alone to spruce up the decaying buildings.

``It seems to bother them that we're doing this on our own,'' says Joe, a construction worker who lives in a squat. ``I don't understand why - we're making good use of the space, providing housing for people. It's part of our nature - to make shelter for ourselves.''

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