February 15, 2015
Squatters have returned to New York City.
One, Peter Zephyrin, considers himself a modern-day Robin Hood for taking over an unfinished and boarded-up complex on Jamaica Avenue in Queens.
Zephyrin, 36, installed electricity and a water heater at the 10 adjoined three-story buildings and is collecting rent from two sets of tenants, who moved into the three-bedroom, two-bath pads in December. He charges $250 a week per resident.
“Imagine you woke up one day and found out the US government gave you license to use your brain and do something unorthodox,” Zephyrin told The Post. “I’m taking what the lazy wealthy person left behind . . . I’m trying to help families out.”
Zephyrin is trying to seize the buildings through “adverse possession” statutes, which permit an enterprising homesteader to acquire abandoned property after occupying it for 10 years, so long as the ownership is not contested.
It’s unlikely Zephyrin would win an adverse possession claim unless he lived there, said attorney and New York Law School Professor Lucas A. Ferrara.
Zephyrin has rented out a number of apartments in this boarded-up complex in Queens.Photo: J.C.Rice
Still, managers for the Jamaica Avenue properties — which have been in foreclosure proceedings since 2009 — haven’t had an easy time getting the squatters out.
Zara Realty, tasked with securing the empty buildings for the court-appointed receiver, removed the front door of 176-16 Jamaica Ave., where squatters are living.
One third-floor resident, Otalia Johns, filed a harassment lawsuit against Zara this month in Queens Housing Court. On Feb. 10, a judge ordered the company to replace the door.
Johns, 24, lives in the apartment with her 1-year-old daughter and three other residents, who helped paint the furnished squat. They heat the apartment by boiling water on a hot plate. There is no gas, refrigerator or working stove.
Tenants don’t pay for electricity or other utilities — and don’t know who does. A Zara manager, who visited the site Wednesday, told The Post that Zephyrin “jumped wires” to get electricity.
“If I give up now, I’m going to be on the street,” Johns said. “We are not trespassing — we were invited by someone who said he adverse possessed the building.”
Otalia Johns with her daughter.Photo: J.C. Rice
Another 40-year-old resident, who declined to give his name, said, “For years, no one was maintaining the building. Now we’re here. We’re helping people in need.”
In the 1980s and ’90s, low-income artists and activists took over and rehabilitated dozens of unoccupied, rotting buildings in the East Village and Lower East Side. They sought legal ownership of their homes, but the city repeatedly tried to evict them — including one violent incident in 1995, when hundreds of cops in riot gear booted the squatters. The city finally granted ownership to 11 surviving squatter buildings in 2002.
New York City has been plagued by foreclosures in recent years. New foreclosures rose 33 percent to 1,560 in 2014 from the previous year, according to data from PropertyShark.
New York ranks third among states for the highest number of “zombie foreclosures,” or homes that are abandoned by owners and banks and stuck in foreclosure limbo. Zombie foreclosures jumped 54 percent — to 16,777 — from January 2014 to last month, according to a recent RealtyTrac report.
Zephyrin was living at the Jamaica Avenue development himself until Jan. 23, when police arrested him and charged him with trespassing and scheming to defraud, court records show.
# # #