Adverse Possession: How People Squat


Source: Kirsten Anderberg, Squat Net

Additionally, present-day squatting alliances, such as Homes Not Jails, in the US, who identify and set up squats for people who are homeless, and the Advisory Service for Squatters/ASS in England, have helped encourage and coordinate recent squats. In Barcelona, Spain, 1996, squatters took over a farm, refusing electricity to protest dams and nukes, and began a self-sufficiency project with organic farming and community workshops. They made their own bread, and sold it to other squatted centers in the area. It is not uncommon to find squats incorporating soup kitchens, libraries, workshops, free stores, zines and publications, work collectives, etc. in their goals and immediate actions. I heard a story about some punks working in Mexico with squatters. The punks had bright hair and wild clothes, and worked as teachers in their school. At first the community was hesitant to trust them, but in time, they grew to be family, and now when the kids from that settlement see a picture of a punk, they point, and say maestro; or teacher.

Vancouver, B.C. has a rich squatting history. In the 1890s, a group of Finnish people built 70 stilt homes in a tidal flood area, and about 50 residents still live on the land without legal claim to it. In 1946, 600 WWII vets in poverty took over the Hotel Vancouver, turning it into a hostel for up to 1,200 vets until 1948. A private owner bought the hotel/hostel and tore it down. In 1970, 300 homeless youth took over the Jericho Beach Hostel, and were evicted in a police battle that spread to the town. Twenty five people and six police officers were injured. Also in 1970s, squatters tore down a fence and occupied a vacant site earmarked for construction eventually, and put up a tent and shack city that lasted about a year. In 1990, The Frances Street squats included several empty houses on one street. The squatters immediately tore down the fences between the yards, and set up a community space offering a free store, potlucks and get togethers. One house was used as a women-only space. A rented house on the block not originally in the squat received an eviction notice, but they refused to leave or pay, and joined the squat themselves. In time, the Vancouver Police demanded the squatters leave. The squatters put up 6 foot high barricades, secured in-door defenses, and set fires in the middle of the streets. Squatters wore masks and helmets, but were evicted violently by 80 riot cops, 30 SWAT members, a bomb squad, earth-moving tractors to demolish the buildings, and more, according to published accounts. The public put more pressure on the federal government to create affordable housing after this event, and it also triggered more squats as well. A group called Direct Action Against Homelessness manifested a Monster Squat on Halloween 1997, in Vancouver, in an abandoned convalescent home. The place had been abandoned for over a year, yet the water still worked and the electricity was still connected (which, oddly, happens more than you would think!). They washed everything from walls to refrigerators, and groups donated food and chores. The space was immediately converted into a soup kitchen, and a community center for art, politics, social gatherings, and a safe space for the homeless. During a one-weekend squat, people were well-fed, slept in warmth, and enjoyed community, in a positive environment. Police kicked in the doors finally, and forced the eviction.

The Page Street Squat in California is an interesting case where squatters, with the help of Homes Not Jails, took possession of the building, and began living in it in Feb 1993. The people who moved in were all very low-income and moved from homeless shelters into the building and shared meals. Since Homes Not Jails had occupied the home continuously for the statute of limitations required to gain title, as well as met the other elements of adverse possession required, such as they paid the 5 yrs taxes, they went to court to quiet title in Dec 1998. Homes Not Jails owned the home for almost 2 more years, until a judge overturned their claim to title in 2000 so now it sits empty again and the homeless are homeless again.

HOW TO SQUAT I have detailed the legal definitions of Adverse Possession in Part 1 of this article as well as why people squat. That article also explores the artificial concept of land ownership in detail, challenging the right of the few to take the land from the many, as well observing how violence is necessary to keep those lands from the masses. So having addressed why people squat, and where people have squatted, the next step is to explore how people CAN squat themselves. So here is some advice from the experts.

A site out of Amsterdam called Krakengaatdoor suggests the following squatting advice: The squatting action itself begins with the breaking-open of the door and the placement inside of a table, bed and chair, the symbolic home furnishings which define domestic inviolability. Subsequently, the squatters call the police, who in turn come round to make a report. The police investigate the duration of vacancy, the owner, the plans for the space and other relevant matters. The officer of justice (prosecutor) subsequently determines whether the law has been broken (whether the premises have not been empty for a sufficiently long time) or whether the squatting is approved. If the premises were not empty for twelve months, then the squatters must vacate immediately. If the premises were in fact empty for long enough, then the authorities’ concern is over with (for the time being) and the owner has to decide for himself how to deal with the situation. Most spaces that are ‘legally’ squatted have a ‘life expectancy’ of several months to perhaps even one or two years. A few percent stay squatted for longer, sometimes more than twenty years. Nowadays, premises are only evicted by the riot police a few times per year, all other squatting actions end peacefully.

The Squatters’ Handbook out of Sydney, Australia, suggests checking the overall structure of the place, are the gas and electricity meters still there? You need to know what to bring back to secure the house and fix it up if necessary. During the day on a weekday is actually the best time to check out houses, less conspicuous and you can see more. It can sometimes take quite sometime for owners to realize that anyone is occupying the house, anything from a few hours to a day to a few weeks even. This time should be used for getting the house together, fixing things up, checking the wiring and water etc. It’s a good idea to get services such as electricity and gas on as quickly as possible, so you can cook and maintain a life at your new home. First thing to do is change the locks and secure the house. Most barrel locks are easily replaced with a few tools (screwdriver, hacksaw, pliers etc.) and are available from hardware shops. Deadlocks may have to sawn off and replaced totally, these cost more but are more secure. Doors or windows that can’t be immediately repaired can have wood or board nailed on them to provide temporary security.

Homes Not Jails, in America, recommends, The first thing to do is to make it look more of a home than a squat. Getting some furniture and possessions inside helps a lot. If the police come by and see that you’re cooking dinner, reading or watching television they’re much more likely to buy an argument that you have permission to be there and are really tenants. If it obviously looks like a squat you’re just crashing in for the night, they’re likely to ignore their training and procedures and will be happy to haul you off to the station “and let god and a judge sort it out later” (as one officer told squatters). The second thing to do is to get some utilities legally in your name and get some mail sent to your squat.This is relatively easy, since most utility companies don’t assume you’re squatting and won’t ask for any proof of tenancy. You should also have some mail sent to you and arrange for services like telephones and cable TV if you can afford them.
Doing all this will give you a fistful of paper to show the police and raise serious doubts in their mind as to whether or not you’re actually a trespasser. If you have a place looking like your home and have some mail and utility bills, you’re likely to be successful in a face off with the police, even if the owner is there as well: In most cases, though, the first complaint will actually come from a neighbor who’s suspicious.

Another form of direct action with regards to land ownership is the Rent Strike. A zine out of Santa Cruz, Ca. entitled, “Pledge to Boycott Rent & Mortgage,” advocates activists begin the organization of a city-wide rent strike. With 1,000 households pledging to boycott rent and mortgage, the first month would amass a budget of approximately $700,000 for legal fees to prevent eviction and to expand the rent strikes. In Barcelona, Spain, in 1931, a group called the Economic Defense Commission demanded rents be reduced by 40%, all security deposits be abolished, and that the unemployed not be forced to pay rent. If the landlord did not comply, the organization threatened 100% of the rent would be withheld! In a population of a million, 45,000 went on the rent strike in after 1 month, and 100,000 were rent striking in 2 months. Police were intimidated from evicting people by angry mobs of militant demonstrators who benefited from the rent strikes. The suppression of this uprising put 350 activists in jail. The Economic Defense Commission was fined heavily and sent underground. The police intensified their violence, and began destroying all property on site during evictions.

The landlords bought their own security teams much like today in Beverly Hills and the national army was used for evictions by the 3rd month of these rent strikes. As I detailed in Part 1 of this article, ripping people off for rents must be maintained by physical force and power.