Squat Thrust

Whether it’s an epidemic or just a rare but outrageous scenario, squatters have emerged as a manifestation of what’s wrong with ‘Merica. Even if its little more than the latest hysteria, it’s worthwhile understanding how and why this happens and the squatters manage to get away with it.

A recent string of incidents in Georgia, New York and Washington has brought squatting, the practice of occupying someone else’s property without their consent, into the spotlight.

In Washington, a squatter named Sang Kim made headlines after preventing Jaskaran Singh, a landlord, from possessing his $2 million property following Kim’s refusal to pay rent for two years.

Earlier in March, a New York property owner was arrested over unlawful eviction after confronting a group of alleged squatters who had taken over her deceased parents’ home in Flushing, Queens, ABC 7 reported. While the woman held the property’s deed, one man said he was on a lease for the house—which meant the property owner was barred from kicking him out [he, in fact, did not actually have a lease].

That same month, David Morris, a landlord in Atlanta, told Fox 5 of a group of squatters who were preventing him from building affordable housing on his nine-acre land and whom he was unable to remove because of a moratorium on evictions.

Morris told the outlet he had agreed to let four people stay on the land without paying rent about 10 years ago, but that he found the number of people occupying the property had grown to about “30 campers.” Though the squatters were taken away from the land, Morris said he spent $10,000 to clean up their garbage.

Squatters are people who take up residence in another person’s property without right or payment. The initial reaction by most reasonable people is to throw them out. After all, they aren’t tenants, pay no rent and were never allowed entry to begin with. They are little different than thieves in the night, stealing possession of property rather than your wallet. Who would have empathy for such people?

Legislators, that’s who. In their effort to protect tenants, the “oppressed” side in the landlord/tenant relationship as far as many legislators are concerned, there are laws that provide two things. First, once a person has resided in a property for 30 days or more, they have established a tenancy. This sounds ridiculous for a squatter, but from the perspective that some landlords take advantage by taking rent without giving a tenant a lease, creating the appearance that they’re squatters when they abused tenants, it makes more sense as a protective measure for the most vulnerable tenants.

Second, once a person has established a tenancy, they are entitled to the protections of landlord/tenant law, which means they cannot be removed except by eviction. The normal notice procedures are required, and then the landlord is required to go to court to obtain an order of eviction. Afterward, the landlord has to get the sheriff (or whoever handles evictions in the jurisdiction) to effectuate the eviction. What the property owner cannot do is employ “self-help,” meaning change the locks and throw them out. Think back to the days of the Great Depression and images of people with all their belongings on the sidewalk.

The point of these definitional conflicts is to protect the vulnerable defendant at the expense of the landlord, who is presumptively greedy and more likely evil than not. Ironically, without landlords, there would be no apartments to rent, but who has time to consider such ramifications when there are feelings to be considered?

The problem with squatters is that the property owners aren’t necessarily landlords at all. They haven’t engaged in any business that invited people to take up tenancy in their premises, but rather found themselves de facto landlords against their will. Why should they bear the loss and burden that legislators have chosen to impose on landlords when they’re completely innocent victims?

It’s not as if there is anything to be gained by suing squatters for rent while in eviction proceedings, The possibility of collecting a judgment against a squatter would be worse than Trump. Why bother?

At VC, Ilya Somin suggests that the state’s preventing property owners from tossing the rascals out on their butts should fall under the Takings Clause, making the state liable to the property owner for denying the owner access by giving tenancy rights to squatters that compels owners to jump through courthouse hoops to get their property back from thieves.

In Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid (2021), the Supreme Court ruled that even temporary government-authorized physical occupations of private property are “per se” (automatic) takings. Thus, the Court struck down a California law requiring agricultural growers to give union organizers access to their land for three hours per day, 120 days per year. At least some state squatter rights’ laws are considerably more egregious than that: They enable squatters to completely occupy the property for many weeks or months on end, totally excluding the owner in the process. That is particularly true of New York City’s law, which gives squatters who claim to be tenants strong rights against removal if they have been on the property for at least 30 days. Landowners seeking to remove the squatters after that point must go through an eviction process, which can take as long as two years.

This may sound good in theory, but it has practical drawbacks. In most instances, the cost/benefit analysis will not be kind to property owners. Whether laws can be better written to protect property owners from squatters remains a mystery, the public policy of favoring the “have nots,” tenants, over the “haves,” property owners, creates a situation where the squatter enjoys a windfall and the property owner gets screwed.

3 thoughts on “Squat Thrust

  1. Elpey P.

    A few examples of Very Fine People exploiting these policies could lead to helpful media pressure and legislative reversals. Get the right identities involved and the ACLU and MSNBC crowd would flip their values faster than you can say “White Rural Rage.”

  2. B. McLeod

    In the current climate, the evil, privileged landowners who have left their spare property sitting vacant will get nowhere as against the vulnerable and oppressed squatters in need of shelter.

    The lesson here is to purchase your vacation properties in red states, where antiquated notions of property rights yet linger.

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