Safeguard Your Site Against Squatters
Squatting may be making a comeback in the United States. In the 1970s, it became a widespread problem in cities after the housing market collapsed. Nearly 40 years later, high unemployment, rising evictions, and homelessness along with the surge of vacant housing may be contributing to its resurrection.
The recession has supplied the ingredients for a squatting boom, says Eduardo Peñalver, a professor at Cornell Law School and co-author of Property Outlaws: How Squatters, Pirates, and Protesters Improve the Law of Ownership. He writes: “As rising unemployment pushes more people out of their houses and apartments, growing numbers of Americans…have little choice but to break the law. And so some of them are turning to a strategy that has cropped up repeatedly in American history—squatting.”
What Rights Do Squatters Have?
Squatting is occupying an abandoned or empty space or building without the owner's permission. Confusion often arises about what rights, if any, squatters have. In the U.K., squatters cannot be legally evicted from premises without a court possession order. But in the United States, “Fundamentally, squatting is trespassing,” says Spencer Weisbroth, a San Francisco-based attorney.
Weisbroth explains that there is no legal distinction between squatting and trespassing. The courts would consider squatters to be trespassing, and you can have them removed.
Take Immediate Action to Remove Illegal Occupants
What should you do if you find signs that someone is illegally occupying a vacant unit? The first step should be to contact the police immediately to have him removed. However, if squatters have been occupying the unit for a while and have created the appearance of a tenancy, such as having furniture in the unit or receiving mail or bills at the address, the situation may get a little more complicated. If it looks as if they're living in the unit, the police will probably be reluctant to act, and the burden shifts to the owner to prove that it is a trespass violation.
It then becomes a civil matter, and the owner can begin an action for ejectment to remove them, Weisbroth says. “The action for ejectment is more appropriate than an action for eviction,” he explains. “An eviction suit implies that they have pre-existing property rights, whereas the ejectment action presumes no property rights. Once the court grants the order, your local sheriff's department would then have the authority to enforce it.
PRACTICAL POINTER: If, upon entering a vacant unit, you find signs that someone may be squatting there, change the locks immediately and secure the premises. If the squatter returns and finds the unit locked and security reinforced, he will probably move on.
Prevention Is the Preferred Method
For most site owners, court should be a last resort, says Weisbroth. “It's much better to protect the property in the first place.”
One way to deter potential squatters is to make vacant units look occupied with blinds or curtains, and having lights on timers.
Vacant units should be securely locked at all times, and site staff should make regular visits to inspect the units. Keep in mind that the tax credit law requires all low-income units at a tax credit site to be suitable for occupancy. If you allow a vacant unit to fall into disrepair, not only will you be courting potential squatters, you will be putting the owner's tax credits at risk.
Spencer Weisbroth: Attorney; (415) 404-7311; firstname.lastname@example.org.
What Are 'Squatter's Rights'?
“Squatter's rights” refer to a legal term called “adverse possession.” Under adverse possession, if someone were to occupy someone else's property for a lengthy period of time, openly and hostile to the owner, he can claim ownership, says Spencer Weisbroth. However, he adds, adverse possession very rarely occurs today since properties and housing developments typically have clear property lines.
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