How Squatting Works

The Contentious Concept of Squatting

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.


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.