By Christopher Maag
Did you see the story about Kenneth Robinson, the man in Texas who is squatting in a McMansion worth $350,000 and says he can buy it legally for just $16? If you missed it, check out this story by ABC News. It’s hilarious. And the neighbours are ticked!
Surprise! He’s Not Crazy.
What the neighbours don’t know is that Robinson is using a little-known legal claim called “adverse possession” that has proven very successful in the past. Here’s the basic version of how it works:
1) Someone owns a property, whether it’s a house, a condo or just a strip of ground.
2) If the owner isn’t using the property, somebody else can come in and use it, without the owner’s permission.
3) After some amount of time (in Texas it’s three years; in New York State it’s 10), the squatter can claim ownership free and clear.
People have been making adverse possession claims for decades. The most famous cases happened on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1980s and ’90s, when artists, punks and homeless people squatted in vacant buildings and brownstones.
Under the law at the time in New York State, people could take possession of a property if they lived there for 10 years and made efforts to “cultivate and improve” the property, says Kathy Zalantis, a real estate lawyer with Silverberg Zalantis in White Plains, NY. That’s why you saw people who did this during the 1980s and ’90s mowing the grass, planting trees and gardens, and making structural improvements to the buildings themselves, Zalantis says.
Now, interest in adverse possession is growing again. Across America, hundreds of thousands of homes are sitting empty. If you live in New York or have visited since 2008, you’ve probably noticed all those big empty buildings that were constructed during the housing boom but never quite finished, and are now sitting empty. Zalantis says she’s receiving a big surge in phone calls from people who have taken up residence in empty spaces (yes, squatting), including one just this Wednesday.
Most of the calls are from people taking advantage of the foreclosure crisis by moving into vacant houses, apartments and condominiums where the foreclosure process has stalled in the courts, Zalantis says. Now they’re living rent-free. And they’re checking to see if they can take permanent ownership of the place.
“I am getting a lot of inquiries from people who would like to try it,” says Zalantis, “probably because with all of the foreclosures going on, and the banks aren’t pursuing foreclosure on these properties, people have been maintaining [the units], paying the electric bills, for years.”
Zalantis’ advice to those people trying to get a great deal on a New York apartment? Don’t hold your breath. New York State tightened its adverse possession law significantly in 2008, she says. Gone is the idea that working to “cultivate and improve” the property will do you any good. Instead, the new law requires squatters to take actions that would notify a “reasonably diligent” property owner that someone else is sleeping in their house.
Does that mean squatters must send the owners a letter? Build a deck or a swimming pool? Landscape the yard? The law is so new, and so untested, nobody knows.
“I don’t really know because there is no case law,” Zalantis says. “You have to do it openly. If you sneak in a locked house and you’re just living there, is that putting the real owner on notice?”
Also, getting a “free” New York apartment isn’t really free. First, you’d have to live in the place for at least 10 years (although you wouldn’t have to pay rent, which wouldn’t be so bad). And then you’d have to go through the legal process of trying to claim adverse possession.
That means a very expensive legal case, Zalantis says. Because the law is so new and because each case is so unique, there’s virtually no way to reduce the cost of litigation by settling before trial. Which means a court trial, discovery, and lots and lots of lawyers billing by the quarter hour.
[Article: What it Takes to “Foreclose” on Your Bank]
The Other Option: Just Take the Dang Thing
There’s a simpler way to take possession of a vacant home: Just do it. Robert Robinson is co-founder of Take Back the Land, a national movement of people laying claim to foreclosed properties. The group has moved homeless people into vacant homes in Miami and Chicago.
In Rochester, New York, Take Back the Land is helping Catherine Lennin stay in her house. She was evicted after her husband died, and Take Back the Land teamed up with an international housing activist group called Alliance of Inhabitants to help her move back in and keep it.
Take Back the Land doesn’t bother with anything complicated like “adverse possession,” Robinson says. They argue that with so many homeless people and so many vacant homes, matching the two together is simply the ethical thing to do.
“I think the times are different in this country,” Robinson says. “If the government can’t recognise the universal right to housing, then we have to take it.”
Of course, just taking it in New York City is often a more difficult matter than in other places. In Miami, occupying a home is rather simple—just call the utility company to get the electricity on and you’re set, Robinson says. But in New York, ConEdison won’t turn the lights on to a big multistory building until it receives an expensive bond as insurance against nonpayment.
“It costs so much to run a building in New York. You have to pay the oil, the taxes,” says Dina Levy, director of organising policy at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, which grew out of the Lower East Side squatting fights of the 1980s. “It raises the question of whether, without government intervention, can it be affordable to the people who need the housing. But then, if you bring in the government is it really a squat, because squatting is illegal.”
All of which means that Robinson’s route looks pretty easy by comparison. He only has to wait three years, not 10. True, he’s living without electricity or running water. But his method of taking over a McMansion has been tried—and has succeeded—many times before.
Christopher Maag is Credit.com’s Staff Writer. Chris graduated with honours from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and has reported for a number of publications including The New York Times, TIME magazine and Popular Mechanics. Reach Chris via email at chris (a) credit.com.
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