Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What is Adverse Possession?

Simply put adverse possession is the legal concept in which one who occupies land without permission for long enough becomes the owner.

This is the squatter's holy grail.

In California the time period is five years which is the shortest of any place I've heard of. Of course in California you must pay the property taxes during that period as well to claim uncontestable ownership of a piece of land.

Now that may sound straight forward, but in real life it is much more complicated. For example, if the owner sues you within the first five years you're pretty much screwed. Also, if it's been over five years and you didn't pay the full five years taxes then you're screwed. Even if you paid five years of taxes if the years you paid do not correspond with the five years you squatted the property you are also screwed.

Also, if you ever have permission from the owner you cannot count your permissive occupancy to count towards the five year requirement. If you leave the squat and come back this also may start the clock over, especially if you have to break back in because the owner boarded up the house or changed the locks.

Because of the difficulty of fulfilling all of these requirements very few squatters achieve ownership through adverse possession. Even if you do achieve it there is no guarantee that the courts will follow the law and grant you the rights you deserve. Judges will often ignore the law because of their class bias against squatters. I'm sure you've heard the story of the guy who was convicted of assaulting a police officer's fist with his face. It happens all the time.

A more reasonable goal is to find a place and live in it for as long as possible. A good situation is when the police and city don't get involved and the neighbors don't mind. Another good situation is if you meet the owner and they don't mind you being there, or even... imagine this... like you.

These outcomes are good even if they fall short of adverse possession's requirements. You have a place to stay rent free for a while, and maybe when they finally try to evict you they might even pay your moving expenses to avoid a trial.

Oh, and just because you can't claim ownership through adverse possession that doesn't mean you don't have other rights and options to fight for your squat. You do, but I'll talk more on that later.

Also, if you really want to adversely possess a property it's not impossible. It's just tricky, and I'll explain more on that later too.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Is Oakland Ready for a Squatting Movement?

In the summer of 2000 I was homeless. I had been working 40 or more hours a week in the food service industry for all of my adult life just to get by, and there I was without a house and without a job. Fortunately I had a lot of friends with a lot of couches. I found odd jobs while I looked for a job, but I had become sick and tired of handing over half of my paycheck to a slumlord.

I had seen a different world. You see I had just returned from Europe where I had seen dozens of squats. These buildings had been occupied by punks or radicals to provide housing and provide space for projects such as concert halls, libraries, book stores, schools, cafes, restaurants, and so on.

In all likelihood if I had not lost my job AND my home upon my return to the states I may not have embarked upon a decade long struggle to establish my own squat in Oakland, California. Now I live in my own squat which I established with the help of many friends, and it appears that Oakland may be the nexus of a squatter movement.

Before establishing my own squat I stayed at a house called Hellarity. After the owner went bankrupt and lost the house we tried to purchase the house. We found investors and everything. Unfortunately someone outbid us at the bankruptcy auction. At the time everyone was speculating on real estate, and this guy probably thought that this was an investment that was guaranteed to pay off. Unfortunately for him he found out that many of us were not giving up the house without a fight.

After 5 years of litigation and over a decade of occupation Hellarity is still there!

Now, in the same neighborhood that I've established my squat there are three others, and we've established a squat garden. There are dozens of abandoned properties still scattered throughout the neighborhood, and the situation could be right for this trend to continue. If so many of these blighted properties can be transformed into functional living spaces, and with more eyes on the street crime rates will go down.

With unemployment at record highs unemployed squatters can work on rehabilitating their squats and doing community projects without the pressure of rent or mortgage forcing them to compete with others in a difficult job market. Rather than work for money to pay the for housing they can pay through sweat equity.

I am excited for the prospects of such a housing rights movement. We can challenge the oppressive cost of housing at the same time that we lift up our own community by creating our own opportunities.