How Squatting Works


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from HowStuffWorks.com.

Josh Clark: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark. With me is Charles W. Bryant. We like to call him Chuck, here on Stuff You Should Know, which is what you're listening to. So there you have it. There's the intro, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: That's nice. I'm coffee-d up now, so I'm firing on all pistons.

Josh Clark: Are you?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: I've got the shakes, Chuck. I'm ready to go.

Chuck Bryant: Let's do it.

Josh Clark: Do you know much about homelessness, Chuck?

Chuck Bryant: Not really.

Josh Clark: Have you ever heard that homelessness really began to take steam in America, in the 60s, 70s and 80s when states started shutting down mental institutions?

Chuck Bryant: I have heard that, actually.

Josh Clark: This part is unsubstantiated, but since I say it's a rumor, I'm going to just continue it anyway. How about that?

Chuck Bryant: That sounds good.

Josh Clark: Apparently, in New York, there was a series of shut downs in the 80s. Ronald Reagan is often blamed for this, although he didn't have any, necessarily, direct hand in shutting down mental institutions.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Not like you're insane. You're out on the street.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: But it was under his administration that a lot of them went under, basically.

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: And you have all these mentally infirm people and now they have nowhere to live. So apparently, in the State of New York, they gave them a bus ticket, like 50 bucks and sent them to New York City.

Chuck Bryant: Really?

Josh Clark: And the homeless population has just shot through the roof since the 60s.

Chuck Bryant: Right, that makes sense.

Josh Clark: Of course there was homelessness before. The Great Depression was a big time for homelessness and hoboism, which is a word I just made up. But it really, really picked up in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And now we have the homeless problem that we have today. And this is not to say that if you're a homeless person, you're mentally unstable. That's not necessarily the case. But the closing down of state institutions around the country really had that effect, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right. That's sad. And I do know that a lot of homeless people are suffering from various forms of mental illness.

Josh Clark: Sure.

Chuck Bryant: That kind of makes sense.

Josh Clark: They're also expanding the definition of homeless. Homelessness, before, usually just encompassed somebody who had no home or was staying in a shelter.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And they expanded it to include people who are living in weekly motels, staying on other people's couches.

Chuck Bryant: Interesting.

Josh Clark: Apparently, that just shot the numbers through the roof.

Chuck Bryant: Wow, yeah, sure.

Josh Clark: So apparently, in 2007, the estimate number by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, for homeless people on the streets, was about 671,000 and change, almost 672,000 people.

Chuck Bryant: That doesn't include the college dude crashing on his buddy's couch.

Josh Clark: No, I don't think so.

Chuck Bryant: During the Fish tour.

Josh Clark: No. And actually, that's pretty funny that you say that because I used to have a friend names Hippy Rob, who was staying at my house for a really long time. And he would not leave. I liked him a lot. He was a good friend, but man, he really knew how to mooch, right.

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: He's staying on my couch. Finally, one day, I took Hippy Rob to K-Mart and said here's 20 bucks. Buy a good tent. And he bought a tent.

Chuck Bryant: You're kidding.

Josh Clark: And I put him in the car with his tent and drove him to the woods. It was like see you later.

Chuck Bryant: Wow.

Josh Clark: It was a lot like that scene from AI, where the mom drops off young David the robot.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: It was less sad, though.

Chuck Bryant: Wow. That's an incredible story.

Josh Clark: That is a true story.

Ch uck Bryant: He was squatting in your own house.

Josh Clark: He was, actually. It's funny that you mention squatting, since this is the title of this podcast, right.

Chuck Bryant: Did you like that?

Josh Clark: So my homeless segue was really intended to serve as juxtaposition between the number of people, homeless on the streets, which is about 672,000, with the number of vacant housing units in the U.S. that same year, which was 16.7 million.

Chuck Bryant: Interesting.

Josh Clark: So basically, what we have in this country is a homeless problem with a clear solution. There's vacant houses, and yet people are on the street still.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: So why don't we just move them in to vacant houses?

Chuck Bryant: Right. It would be a little tricky, I guess, but it seems possible.

Josh Clark: Actually, there are people who are doing it right now.

Chuck Bryant: Really?

Josh Clark: Yeah. There's this group called Take Back the Land down in Miami. And they have been staging, basically, homeless move-ins, into vacant housing down there.

Chuck Bryant: Now is this new housing or stuff that's been abandoned?

Josh Clark: I think it's both, bank owned, foreclosed, stuff that's been on the market forever. Miami, apparently, just got reamed by this subprime mortgage fallout. There's plenty of houses to go around. So these people are just moving them in there. Same with Homes, not Jails, who are basically - their mission, is to stop the court system from just jailing homeless people.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: The San Francisco Tenant's Union, there's a lot of people out there who are saying there's an empty house right there. This person is homeless, whether it's because they are insane or they're down on their luck. It doesn't matter. Basically, it's the distinction between whether or not housing is a basic human right.

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: Is it? Isn't it? Under capitalism, no, it's not. If you don't have the money, you're on the street, whether this is vacant or not, right.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: So okay, we're talking about squatting, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: Yes.

Josh Clark: Let's go. Let's give a little background on squatting.

Chuck Bryant: Okay.

Josh Clark: Are you going to give a little background on squatting?

Chuck Bryant: Well, sure, Josh.

Josh Clark: Can you define squat?

Chuck Bryant: Yes, it's when you actually live in a place or on a parcel of land that's unused.

Josh Clark: Or not yours.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, not yours and not used.

Josh Clark: Yeah, we should make the distinction because if you move into a house with a family already living there, you've just committed home invasion and you're in big trouble.

Chuck Bryant: Right. So it's an empty house. It's not yours or a piece of land, and you've moved in or camped out on it and stayed there.

Josh Clark: Right.

Chuck Bryant: And that means you are squatting.

Josh Clark: Right, that is squatting.

Chuck Bryant: Yes.

Josh Clark: Right there. Which would probably be the end of the story, right, because if you own that land or you own that house and you have a squatter, you would think all you would have to do is go in, pull a gun on them and run them off.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Right?

Chuck Bryant: Or more peaceably, ask them to leave.

Josh Clark: Yeah, squatters don't usually -

Chuck Bryant: Or get the police involved.

Josh Clark: I think somebody who leaves if you ask them to, was just crashing at that place.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: A squatter is one who just says no.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: I'm not moving.

Chuck Bryant: You would think it would be that cut and dry, but it's actually not that cut and dry because squatters can actually - are protected in certain ways.

Josh Clark: Yeah, there's this thing called - well there's property rights, the right of a landowner or a homeowner, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: There's also tenant's rights.

Chuck Bryant: Yes.

Josh Clark: Whe re, if you rent, like I do, I can't just be kicked out of my house because the landlord got sick of me. There's a lease. There's a contractual obligation. There's laws that guide that along. The thing is is in, I think, every state; these same rights are extended to squatters.

Chuck Bryant: Mm-hmm, they are.

Josh Clark: And a tenant right actually kicks in, in Georgia after three days.

Chuck Bryant: Really?

Josh Clark: Yeah. So if you have an annoying house guest over for a long weekend, at the end of the three days, if they don't feel like moving, you've got a problem on your hands.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. That's why I refuse to have any house guests for longer than two days.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: That's a house rule.

Josh Clark: It's a good policy. It's a good rule of thumb, right.

Chuck Bryant: Two days and you're out.

Josh Clark: So all right. We've got property rights. We have tenant's rights. And basically, as an extension of the tenant's rights, there's also this thing called adverse possession.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: The ultimate nightmare of somebody who has a squatter.

Chuck Bryant: Right. We heard a little bit back from fans about when we did our gorilla gardening podcast, about someone beautifying a strip of public land. Potentially, that could lead to adverse possession. So that's reason that someone might not want that.

Josh Clark: Yeah. I think the technical definition of adverse possession is living openly, continuously and hostilely. And hostilely isn't like you're chasing little kids around your yard with a stick. It's you're not moving if they ask you to.

Chuck Bryant: Well yeah, and it means you don't have permission.

Josh Clark: Right. They - you have to live there for a set period, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And that's usually state by state. In California, if you can do that for five years, you own the property. In West Virginia, it's ten. In Texas, it's 30. But I think every state, again, has a rule of adverse possession.

Chuck Bryant: They do.

Josh Clark: So basically, if you live there, if you are - especially if you're keeping the place up, that kind of thing and people know you're living there, once that time period comes up, you can go pay the property taxes and that's yours.

Chuck Bryant: Right. That's the key though is the property taxes.

Josh Clark: Right.

Chuck Bryant: I think that makes it official.

Josh Clark: I imagine that that almost never happens, that adverse possession takes place, right?

Chuck Bryant: You think?

Josh Clark: I mean in this day and age with this many people crawling around the planet, land, it's important. It's expensive, right?

Chuck Bryant: Well I'm gunning for it. Is it time for my squatting story?

Josh Clark: Yeah, please.

Chuck Bryant: I'm a squatter, Josh.

Josh Clark: Oh yeah, that's right.

Chuck Bryant: Remember this?

Josh Clark: I remember you talking about it. Are you sure you want to talk about this, Chuck?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, no one knows where I live. My house, that I bought, has a little strip of land behind it, very small strip of land, about 100 feet by 40 feet, I would say. And the previous owner of the home had that sectioned off, for some reason. And it's, technically, separate from my property. We never heard from this guy and we moved in. And half of that strip of land is most of my backyard. So Emily and I decided that we're just going to put our fence up, put our privacy fence up, plant grass and claim possession of this land. If we never hear from this guy, we checked with the county and there were years of back taxes owed on it that he clearly abandoned. I guess he thought he could build something on it, but there's not enough room. You have to have variances a certain amount from the curb and all that to build something. So he couldn't build anything on it and basically just kind of dumped it. So we have claimed it as our own and we've been in the house for, I think, three years now.

Josh Clark: Have you been living hostilely?

Chuck Bryant: We have been living very hostilely.

Josh Clark: What's the time limit in Georgia? Do you know?

Chuck Bryant: I'm not positive. I believe it's seven years, but we need to look that up for sure. And we've also been in touch with the county about the back taxes still haven't been paid. And when it comes time, we're going to pay the taxes and claim it as our own.

Josh Clark: Nice, nice. Keep living the dream, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: I know.

Josh Clark: Keep fighting the good fight, right?

Chuck Bryant: Keep squatting.

Josh Clark: In addition to living continuously, openly and hostilely, right, there's actually some steps that a squatter can take to, basically, lay claim on a place, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: If you're keeping a place up, if you clean it up, maybe plant some shrubs, something like that, you're laying claim on the place. And you're also showing that it's actually going to - it's doing better in your possession whether you really own it or not.

Chuck Bryant: Right. You've improved upon it.

Josh Clark: Which goes a long way too. But let's say you move into a place. You throw up some curtains, plant a couple of bushes. Maybe you borrow a lawnmower from a friend with a house and you cut the lawn, something like that.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And you've set up house, right. One of the first things you can expect is a visit from the cops.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Because if you live in a neighborhood and a house has been empty, and all of a sudden, there's somebody living in it, especially somebody who dries their shirts on a clothesline out front, they're going to take notice and they're going to call the cops on you.

Chuck Bryant: True, but there's not a lot a cop can do, though.

Josh Clark: No, there's not. If you can prove tenant rights, that you are staying there, whether you're supposed to be or not, right, one good way to do this is go to the utility company and ask to have the power turned on and start paying a power bill there.

Chuck Bryant: Which you can do pretty easily.

Josh Clark: Put it in your name. Yeah, you don't have to prove ownership. I never have had to.

Chuck Bryant: I haven't either.

Josh Clark: You just go and set up an account, start paying, and then you have bills that are coming in your name to that address. If the cops show up to your house, you get to show them this and they say good enough for me. And what you've just done is shifted the burden of proof that you're not supposed to be there from you, the squatter, to the landlord.

Chuck Bryant: Right, and it's now -

Josh Clark: Which is a huge headache for a landlord?

Chuck Bryant: Right, and becomes a civil matter.

Josh Clark: It is a civil matter. The cops are immediately taken out of the equation.

Chuck Bryant: Indeed.

Josh Clark: I have to tell you. When I first researched this article, I was very much gung-ho, like squatter's rights. Let's put the homeless in homes. And I get that. I still feel that. But I was kind of brought down to earth a little bit when I interviewed our COO, Mike Cascone.

Chuck Bryant: Yes.

Josh Clark: Who actually had a long harrowing story with a squatter?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, really fascinating.

Josh Clark: He had a rental place, right? And he had a tenant that had a lease. And the lease came up. And the tenant moved out. But the tenant had a friend staying there. And the friend didn't move out. And she said I'm not moving. Sorry bud. And so Cascone says that you think all the things that you can do to get rid of somebody who's a squatter, you can't do. You can't turn off the power. You can't turn off the water. You basically have to make sure that they're comfortable and safe.

Chuck Bryant: Right. You can actually get fined.

Josh Clark: Yeah, you can get big time fined. And he also said he spent several thousand dollars in court fees and things like having subpoenas delivered that kind of stuff and missed work, getting this person o ut of his place.

Chuck Bryant: And good luck getting a refund on anything like that or getting the squatter to pay you back.

Josh Clark: Right. Oh yeah, no. I don't think she had much money.

Chuck Bryant: No, that's why she was squatting.

Josh Clark: Yeah, so that was - that kind of changed my attitude a little bit. At the very least, now I start to - I see if from both sides because there is a victim in it, even though when you're talking about putting the homeless in housing, it's kind of tough to see it that way. But there definitely is.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: So what do you do?

Chuck Bryant: How to get a squatter out?

Josh Clark: Yeah, tell me.

Chuck Bryant: Well, I think there are legal avenues that you need to go through if you're a landlord, which does not include, like we said, turning off the water and power because you can get in trouble for that.

Josh Clark: Right. If you're a landlord, you need to call an attorney if you have a squatter. Don't make a move. Just say I'd like you to get out. They say no. You say to be continued and go get a lawyer. But the landlord, that's tough. You usually, if you're an individual landlord, you don't have vast resources. So the great enemy of the common squatter is gentrification, urban renewal because all of a sudden, you have developers in the equation. And developers tend to have much deeper pockets and possibly fewer scruples than the individual landlord. There's actually a house that was being squatted in down the street from me, a couple of years back.

Chuck Bryant: Really?

Josh Clark: Yeah, it was bad. And one day, it wasn't there any more.

Chuck Bryant: Tore it down.

Josh Clark: The guy just tore it down.

Chuck Bryant: Interesting. The developer did?

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Waited until the person was out of the house or just showed up with a bulldozer?

Josh Clark: I don't know. I've seen a couple of people who were squatting in the house, walking around since then, so I guess he gave them a chance to get out, but the house isn't there any more.

Chuck Bryant: Interesting.

Josh Clark: Which is really kind of cynical, a little sour, I should say because now it's just an empty piece of land.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: But I guess he really didn't want people staying in his house.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, so he sent the wrecking ball through.

Josh Clark: Right. And so urban renewal, in general, once you have the presence of developers, but not just developers, upwardly mobile people who really don't want squatters hanging around and bringing property values back down, right. So if you're a squatter, you're in trouble once a place gets tapped for gentrification.

Chuck Bryant: Right, and I would guess, and this is a generalization, but most people that move and squat into a place that's abandoned probably don't do massive improvements.

Josh Clark: No.

Chuck Bryant: It's probably not that kind of situation.

Josh Clark: I can tell you the squat down the street from me was not the case.

Chuck Bryant: Really?

Josh Clark: Yeah. But I am in an area that is being gentrified as we speak, right. And apparently, Geneva, Switzerland went through a similar thing. In the 90s, there was a group called Rhino. And they were basically political activist squatters. And at its peak, this group held 150 apartment buildings, apartment buildings, not apartment units in the city. And all of a sudden, there's this urban renewal movement that comes through Geneva and by 2007, they had like 27, which is still a substantial amount of apartment buildings. But compared to 150, you can see once an area is targeted like this, then there's nothing you can do.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: You have to move out to the sticks.

Chuck Bryant: Sure. They've also done this in London and Denmark, just to name a couple.

Josh Clark: Yeah. Squatting can be good, to some extent.

Chuck Bryant: How is that?

Josh Clark: So there's this Peruvian economist. His name is Hernando De Soto.

Chuck Bryant: Very nice.

Josh Clark: thank you. And he created what he called a roadmap to wealth. And it was specifically designed for post Soviet, former satellite countries.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: That were making the transition from communism to the free market. And one of the facets of this, one of the major parts of it was that squatters on rural land, the rural poor who were just living on land in shanties and that kind of thing, their land, the land that they were squatting on should be parceled up and they should go register it. And then by being land owners, they would have credit available to them, which should, conceivably, get the economy going.

Chuck Bryant: Right. Interesting theory!

Josh Clark: It's unproven, but it's actually being tried in a country called Prutnishovy, which is an unrecognized nation that used to formerly be part of Muldova.

Chuck Bryant: Interesting.

Josh Clark: So we'll see if it happens.

Chuck Bryant: Right, see if they get their seat at the U.N.

Josh Clark: Yeah. Well we'll see. Only time will tell. And if they do, you can be that it's going to be because of Hernando De Soto.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And they'll probably put him on some sort of currency.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, probably or a statue, at least.

Josh Clark: So that's squatting, right, Chuck?

Chuck Bryant: Squatting, I will continue to squat and maybe in a few years, if we're still doing this podcast, then I'll let everyone know how it went.

Josh Clark: Yeah, I'm really curious to see how this goes.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, me too.

Josh Clark: I hope you didn't just out yourself.

Chuck Bryant: I don't think so.

Josh Clark: So have you got anything else? You want to get something off your chest, maybe, maybe a little listener mail? All right. Let's hear it.

Chuck Bryant: Josh, this comes to us, and I'm not going to read this person's name because it's slightly sensitive. We'll just say that the name starts with a G. And G wrote us about the Delta Force podcast. And here's what G had -

Josh Clark: Oh yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Remember that one?

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Here's what G had to say. The podcast reminded me of a friend I used to have at work. When Ronald Reagan started doing his war on drugs, my friend, let's call him John, was removed from the military and sent on these Black Ops, Black Operations. An amount of money would be left in a safe deposit box in the mark's area. The mark was someone he had to kill, with a photo of the mark and some other information. The mark was usually a drug lord or a higher up, deemed too big of a threat. So John and his partner would use the money to buy local guns and supplies, then head out and snipe the person.

Josh Clark: Wax them.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, wax them. This guy would tell these stories in the break room, evidently. He said it wasn't a one day operation. They had to set up camp the night before and set up landmines around their camp so anyone coming in would get tripped up by the landmine coming in trying to kill them. And he says on countless occasions, he would hear an explosion, thinking an assassin was coming to kill him, only to find a shredded cow had happened upon the landmine.

Josh Clark: Yeah. Cows are always the innocent bystanders, aren't they?

Chuck Bryant: So this is an amazing story, and I don't know if it's true, but I don't see no reason why this person would write in and make all this up. So it sounds pretty good to me.

Josh Clark: Yeah, well thanks a lot, G. That story is absolutely nuts. And if you have an amazing or harrowing tale of cow's being blown up or people being greased or if you just want to say hi, you can send an e-mail to StuffPodcast@HowStuffWorks.com.Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit HowStuffWorks.com.