How Squatting Works


So you've got a squatter. What do you do now? Why is he here? Find out in this article.
So you've got a squatter. What do you do now? Why is he here? Find out in this article.
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After three long months away, you're finally home. It was a rough trip, but now you're at your front door. You open the door and take a step inside. Something's wrong. The lights are on, but you don't have a timer rigged up. There's a bag of chips open on the coffee table and a bath towel draped over the back of th­e armchair. You're hit with a jolt of adrenaline -- a burglar's been in your home. Before you can react, a guy wanders into the room. He's wearing your robe. "Who are you?" he asks.

You scan the apartment. Yes, this is your place. Your stuff's all here, but it's being used by someone else. Friend, you've got yourself a squatter.

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­Squatting is a pretty simple concept. It's setting up camp on a parcel of land or moving into an abandoned or unused dwelling. (However, moving into a house that has a family still living there is considered home invasion, not squatting.)

There are a number of different situations that can give rise to squatting. The poverty-stricken commonly build shantytowns on property that doesn't belong to them. The homeless may take refuge in an abandoned home for a few nights -- or years. Some people use squatting to make a political statement about the economic gap between the rich and poor. To others, squatting simply represents a way to buck authority. Even a houseguest who won't leave and a tenant who continues to stay past the expiration date of a lease both qualify as squatters.

Squatters who take over land or dwellings have the law to contend with. Since the establishment of property rights in the U.S. (which were founded around the time the nation formed), disputes over squatting have favored the landowner. But there are plenty of legal loopholes that squatters can take advantage of to help him or her take ownership of a property.

The life of a squatter is fraught with pitfalls and confrontations at each turn -- and so is the life of the landlord who has to deal with the unwanted resident. There are concurrent laws that give rights to squatters as well as provide a process for landowners to get rid of them. So how exactly does squatting work? Find out on the next page.

Squatting and the Law

Members of Brazil's Militarized Police patrol an alley in the squatter village of Cidade Alta (known as the "City of God") in Rio de Janeiro in 2007.
Members of Brazil's Militarized Police patrol an alley in the squatter village of Cidade Alta (known as the "City of God") in Rio de Janeiro in 2007.
Antonia Scorza/AFP/Getty Images

Squatting can take a variety of forms. The poor have long established squatters' camps, called shantytowns, on unattended plots of land. Brazil's famous City of God (or "Cidade Alta"), has become a fortified squatter village. Many of the 20,000 residents engage in firefights against the police and military to hold their ground against being rousted from the land [source: Observer].

On a larger scale, entire nations have been built by squatters. Both the United States and Australia were founded by people who moved in on land already occupied by other people. The squatting continued to spread from one coast to the other until the original inhabitants had been subdued. 

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The San Francisco Tenants Union points out a squatter's two major problems: He or she isn't putting any money down for the pad and is living in the house without any permission from the owner. The union says these obstacles are tough, but overcoming them is possible. Squatters can compensate the owner in other ways than paying rent, such as doing maintenance on the dwelling. And even if there's no contractual agreement between a squatter and a property owner, other unwritten agreements can serve as a type of lease -- or at least, an acknowledgment of the dweller. A landlord who is aware of squatters living in a house and does nothing to get rid of them may be viewed as implicitly agreeing with their presence [source: SFTU]. 

The key to squatting successfully lies in the tenant's rights. States grant rights to people who live in a home but do not own it. This protects tenants from being kicked out without notice from a landlord. In most states, tenant rights are extended to anyone living in a home for period of time -- usually 30 days. Squatters exploit these rights to stay in a home as long as possible. By setting up housekeeping, like making repairs, adding some curtains, and settling into the home in a generally respectable manner, the appearance of tenants' rights can be established. 

In time, squatters can actually earn ownership of the dwelling. There's a legal precedent in most of the United States called adverse possession. This doctrine says that if a squatter lives "openly, continuously and hostilely" in a home for a prescribed number of years, he or she can become the owner. This applies to property that's vacant and where property taxes aren't being paid. The three criteria that must be met are making no attempts to hide the inhabitation (open), living in the dwelling continuously and without permission (hostile). If the squatter pays property taxes on the home, when the time limit is reached, he or she is considered the owner. 

The time requirement before ownership through adverse possession kicks in varies from state to state. In California it's five years; in Texas it's 30 [source: Bruss]. In West Virginia, open dominion must be held over the property for 10 years [source: State of West Virginia]. But ultimately, adverse possession can result in a squatter owning the house. Talk about a successful squat.

Squatting isn't a one, two, three concept. There are challenges to taking over a house at every turn. Read about the squatter's dilemma on the next page.

The Contentious Concept of Squatting

Rachel Santiago with her two children in their shack, built in a squatting village in Manila, Philippines
Rachel Santiago with her two children in their shack, built in a squatting village in Manila, Philippines
Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images

Squatters can bet their lives on an eventual visit from the police after they're noticed living in a house. Neighbors may call the authorities, or the landlord may drop by to check on his or her property and find unwanted tenants living there. We'll talk about the landlord's point of view soon, but first, let's look at the roadblocks to squatting. 

If police find squatters, there's not a whole lot they can do. Police uphold criminal law -- not civil law. Civil law is worked out in the courts. Once police determine that a squatter has established some sort of tenancy, the issue becomes a civil matter. By settling into a home in a generally respectable manner, a squatter can create the appearance of tenants' rights. This appearance alone can confound an easy rousting of squatters.

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If a squatter sets up utilities -- a process which generally doesn't require proof of tenantship -- he or she now has enough evidence of residency for police in some cities [source: SFTU]. Then, it becomes the landlord's responsibility to prove the squatter isn't supposed to be living in the house. This effectively takes the matter out of the hands of the police and turns it over to the civil courts. Once the court has the case, it can take years to resolve.  

Perhaps the greatest challenge squatters face isn't the police, concerned neighbors or angry landlords. It's gentrification. This is a process of urban renewal that can happen seemingly overnight. A few curious, upwardly mobile families move into an area and rehabilitate old houses. This, in turn, attracts more people. Suddenly, what was once a poverty-stricken area has a customer base for upscale businesses. The area begins to undergo redevelopment. 

Abandoned houses may become targets for redevelopment. When developers have designs on the property, squatters are really out of luck. Developers may have more money and better attorneys than the average landlord. Ultimately, developers can force squatters out of a house by simply demolishing it. And even if the squatter could prove some sort of legitimate claim on the house, the squatter generally won't have enough money to hire an attorney to sue the developers. 

Governments can get in on the act, too. In Puerto Rico in 1995, the National Guard was called in to help evict hundreds of squatters living in a run-down apartment complex. The complex was built as housing for athletes during the 1979 Pan-American Games. It had been abandoned over the years by legitimate tenants and taken over by squatters. The apartments were destined to become a mixed-use development, and the squatters had to go [source: New York Times]. 

Sometimes, bad behavior can make it easy to justify rousting a squatter. Two days before the Puerto Rican guardsmen took hold of the apartments, a person had been murdered and cast off a 9th floor balcony in the complex. But squatters with clean noses can still have trouble when redevelopment is in the air. In Reading, England, a group of "anarcho-commies" took over an abandoned community center in early 2007. The group planted communal gardens and cleaned up the place. The following October, though, the squatters were removed [source: UK Indy Media]. 

There's still another party to consider -- the landlord. Squatting, after all, isn't a victimless crime. Read about the landlord's point of view on the next page.

The Landlord's Point of View

British legal authority Lord Denning in 1979.
British legal authority Lord Denning in 1979.
Central Press/Getty Images

There's another party to consider in the issue of squatting: the property's owner. An unused house that is hijacked by squatters might be in a transition between tenants. Once squatters have moved in, any potential revenue that may come from the property screeches to a halt. While a landlord may feel like the loser in a squatting situation, if he or she follows the law, the landlord will most likely emerge as the victor. 

When a landlord finds a squatter, the first logical step would seem to be to cut off the power and water to the house and padlock the doors. Not a good idea. There are laws that protect the rights of a tenant, and these are granted to squatters as well. The courts can levy fines against the landlord for taking these illegal actions [source: University of New Mexico]. What's more, a landlord can be held liable for any harm that comes to a person on his or her property -- even people living there without permission. This makes the situation even stickier for a steamed landlord and is all the more reason for him or her to seek legal advice.

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While there are laws that protect the squatter, there are also laws to protect the property holder. These laws tend to ultimately favor the landlord. In the United Kingdom, 20th-century legal mind Lord Tom Denning posited, "[A squatter] may seek to justify or excuse his conduct. He may say that he was homeless and that this house or land was standing empty, doing nothing. But this plea is of no avail in the law" [source: Boodle/Hatfield]. If the property holder follows the law to the letter, the duration of the legal battle between landlord and squatter can actually be shortened. Acting quickly upon learning that his or her property has been taken over by a squatter lends legal weight to the landlord. As we've already learned, failure to decry the squatter can be interpreted in court as implied consent to the squatter's presence. 

Step one to getting rid of a squatter is to call the police. If the squatter is deemed to have established tenant's rights, it becomes a civil matter and the police are helpless to intervene. Then the process of eviction begins. 

This legal procedure involves lots of paperwork, including serving the unwanted tenant with eviction notices and informing them of court dates. It also involves sacrifice on the landlord's behalf: He or she must take time off from work to appear in court and accept lost rent money on the property if it is for lease. All told, one HowStuffWorks employee who found a squatter in his rental property says he spent thousands of dollars getting rid of her. This amount didn't include property damage, like the landlord's refrigerator that was without power for three months in the summer -- the squatter duct-taped the seal to keep the smell in. 

The squatter our HSW employee encountered appeared to be simply looking for a place to live rent-free. But squatting can also be a political statement. For people who believe housing is an inalienable human right, squatting is as much about protest as it is finding shelter. The political side of squatting has created movements around the world -- both in and out of developed Western capitalist societies. Read about the squatters' rights movement on the next page.

The Politics and Economics of Squatters' Rights

Politics were at the fore of the "Battle for 13th Street" in New York. Hundreds of squatters had inhabited government-owned buildings for 12 years, but were forcibly removed by police in 1995.
Politics were at the fore of the "Battle for 13th Street" in New York. Hundreds of squatters had inhabited government-owned buildings for 12 years, but were forcibly removed by police in 1995.
Carolyn Schaefer/Getty Images

The concept of granting rights to a person who takes over property that isn't his or hers could make some capitalists' heads spin. But in socialist countries and nations with strong socialist parties, squatting can be used as a means to solve homelessness. Squatting can be a political statement that emphasizes the gap between the wealthy and the poor.

Rhino is one group that formed to protest rising costs in real estate. At its peak in the mid-1990s, this Swiss group took over 150 empty apartment buildings in Geneva. As urban renewal took hold in the city, the number of squats (residences inhabited by squatters) dwindled to about 27 buildings by 2007 [source: Tribune de Geneve]. 

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That same year in Denmark, police clashed with protesters after evicting "left wing activists" from a Copenhagen youth center. The police were acting on an eviction order, removing the squatters from the building, which they had occupied since 1982 [Herald Sun]. 

Squatters in London made a statement about the gap between rich and poor when they took over a house for 10 days in the summer of 2001. The $3 million (1.5 million pound) house belonged to wealthy British economist Gavyn Davies. During the mass eviction on the 10th day, one squatter said, "I don't feel guilty about this at all, because this guy's rich" [source: The Telegraph]. 

Some economists are perhaps lesser targets for anarchists, socialists and squatters in general. Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto devised a "wealth-creation roadmap" specifically for post-Soviet nations struggling with the transition from communism to a free market economy. Part of that roadmap involves squatting. De Soto's idea is to formally register the dwellings of the rural poor, essentially granting squatters rights to their homes. By granting these rights, the poor would receive legal documentation of tenantship, which would help open doors to lines of credit. Theoretically, this would build wealth for the nation as a whole. The unrecognized Eurasian country of Pridnestrovie is adopting de Soto's plans [source: Tiraspol Times]. 

Organizations have sprung up that use squatting to further a political agenda. The group Homes Not Jails (HNJ) has chapters in Washington, D.C., Boston and San Francisco. HNJ's goal is to end homelessness and put a stop to what they perceive as a policy of jailing the homeless. To bring attention to the issue of homelessness, the group identifies abandoned and unused buildings throughout the three cities. During publicized media events, HNJ moves groups of homeless into the dwellings. This social experiment provides exposure to a major social problem while also finding shelter for the cities' displaced [source: Homes Not Jails].

For more information on squatting and other related topics, visit the next page.

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Sources

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