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Squatting in the United States describes the legal and practical aspects of squatting (the unauthorized use of real estate) in the United States of America.

Squatting laws vary from state to state and city to city. For the most part, however, squatting is rarely tolerated to any degree for long, particularly in cities.[1] There have been a few exceptions, notably in 2002 when the New York City administration agreed to turn over eleven squatted buildings in the Lower East Side to an established non-profit group, on the condition that the apartments would later be turned over to the tenants as low-income housing cooperatives.[2]

Squatters can be young people living in punk houses or low-income or homeless people. Recently there have been increasing numbers of people squatting foreclosed homes using fraudulent documents.[3][4] There are also reports of people squatting in their own foreclosed homes[5] and Michael Feroli (chief U.S. economist at JPMorgan Chase) has commented on the boon to the economy of "squatter rent" or the extra income made available for spending by people not fulfilling their mortgage repayments.[6]


California Gold RushEdit

In January 1848, two weeks after California was ceded to the United States, gold was discovered in California, resulting in a flood of fortune seekers gravitating to the state in the following months and years. Due to the ambiguity of existing laws regarding squatting on federal land, individual mining camps developed squatting laws to fill the legal void. Policies relating to abandonment and work requirements were established on a camp-by-camp basis. As extraction became more capital-intensive, the share of mining camps that allowed a company to own land increased significantly.[7] Mining laws for mining on federally-owned land passed in 1872 and helped develop the western states in America, but as time passed, their effectiveness and appropriateness waned. [8]

Squatting was used by American settlers to establish a claim that could be used to challenge the land grants of the ranchos of the Californios before the Public Land Commission and the United States courts.

Legal protectionsEdit

The United States Homestead Acts legally recognized the concept of the homestead principle and distinguished it from squatting, since the law gave homesteaders a legal way to occupy 'unclaimed' lands. Additionally, US states that have a shortage of housing tend to tolerate squatters in property awaiting redevelopment until the developer is ready to begin work. However, at that point, the laws tend to be enforced.[citation needed] The Homestead Act of 1862 was signed by Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862, and was enacted to foster the reallocation of 'unsettled' land in the West. The law applied to U.S. citizens and prospective citizens that had never borne arms against the U.S. government. It required a five-year commitment, during which time the land owner had to build a twelve-by-fourteen foot dwelling, and develop or work the 160-acre (0.65 km2) plot of land allocated. After five years of positively contributing to the homestead, the applicant could file a request for the deed to the property, which entailed sending paperwork to the General Land Office in Washington, D.C. and, from there, "valid claims were granted patent free and clear".[9] Moreover, there were loopholes to this law, including provisions made for those serving in the U.S. military. After the Civil War, Union veterans could deduct time served in the army from the five-year homesteader requirement.

In common law, through the legally recognized concept of adverse possession, a squatter can become a bona fide owner of property without compensation to the former owner. Adverse possession is the process by which one acquires the title to a piece of land by occupying it for the number of years necessary, dictated differently in practice by each state's statute of limitation for an eviction action. A necessary component of this transfer of ownership requires that the landowner is aware (or should be aware) of the land occupation[citation needed] and that he or she does nothing to put an end to it. If the land use by the new occupant goes unchecked for the said number of years, the new occupant can claim legal rights to the land. The occupant must show that the "possession is actual, open, notorious, exclusive, hostile, under cover of claim or right, and continuous and uninterrupted for the statutory period."[10] As Erin Wiegand notes, the most difficult part of claiming adverse possession on the part of squatters is the "continuous" part. Squatting is a very transient lifestyle and many people are evicted on a frequent basis.[11] In an article regarding recent foreclosures in the United States, a current squatter in Miami stated of her housing, "It's a beautiful castle and it's temporary for me, if I can be here twenty-four hours, I'm thankful."[12]

Occupancy issuesEdit

Laws based on a contract-ownership interpretation of property make it easy for deed holders to evict squatters under loitering or trespassing laws.[13]

Squatting as a housing justice actionEdit

Community organizations have helped the homeless to take over vacant buildings not only as a place to live but also a part of larger campaign to shine a light on inequity in housing and advocate change in housing and land issues.

ACORN launches national campaignsEdit

Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (or ACORN) was one of the first organizations in the U.S. to launch a national squatting campaign to challenge and transform federal and local housing policies to provide for more affordable housing.

In 1979, ACORN launched a squatting campaign to protest the mismanagement of the Urban Homesteading Program. The squatting effort housed 200 people in 13 cities between 1979 and 1982. In June 1982 ACORN constructed a tent city in Washington, D.C. and organized a congressional meeting to call attention to plight of the homeless. In 1983, as a result of their demonstrations, many of the suggestions of the ACORN were incorporated into the Housing and Urban-Rural Recovery Act of 1983. This brought in a period of local urban homesteading where tax delinquent properties on the city level were included in the program.[14]

In 1981, ACORN and Inner-City Organizing Network moved hundreds of people into vacant buildings in Philadelphia. The Squatter actions created such an upheaval that the Federal government got involved offering housing to the squatters in the 67 federally owned buildings if they agreed to leave.[15]

Between June 15 and August 2 of 1985, ACORN supported homeless people to take over 25 city-owned buildings in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn.[16] During the actions 11 people were arrested. The City responded by granting the former squatters 58 city owned buildings, money for technical and architectural aid, and $2.7 million in rehabilitation loans.[17] In order to preserve democratic decision making and affordability to the buildings the squatters organized themselves into collective members of a Mutual Housing Association. In a mutual housing association, neighborhood residents form a collective, contributing some money and a lot of sweat equity to rehabilitate buildings for their own use in return for public support and limited ownership. The collective - in this case the Mutual Housing Association of New York - retains title to the land. If owners choose to sell, the association has the right to repurchase for a price reflecting only individual investment, not the market.[17]

Operation HomesteadEdit

In 1988, Operation Homestead in Seattle began occupying buildings and negotiating their sale to nonprofit low-income housing organizations. By 1993, it had successfully reclaimed 300 units.[18] In May 1991 Operation Homestead (OH) occupied Arion Court, a vacant apartment building, to draw attention to number of vacant housing the City was letting deteriorate while there was a large need for affordable housing.[19] As a result of the protest the building was renovated and turned into 37 low-income housing units.[20] Arion Court became the first self-managed permanent housing project for previously homeless people in Washington state as the residents decide the rules and how to enforce them.[21] In 1992 OH occupied the Pacific Hotel, prompting the house to be turned over to a nonprofit for low-income housing. It functioned as an emergency shelter until it was renovated and converted in 113 affordable housing units.[22] OH also did occupations of The McKay Apartments and the Gatewood Hotel.[23]

Take Back the LandEdit

Take Back the Land is a Miami-based, self-proclaimed "housing liberation" group that formed in 2006. They break into vacant, unused bank-owned foreclosed homes and move homeless people inside.[12] Take Back the Land organized a shantytown called the Umoja Village to squat a vacant lot in 2006 and 2007.[24]

Homes Not JailsEdit

Homes Not Jails advocates squatting houses to end the problem of homelessness. It has opened "about 500 houses, 95% of which have lasted six months or less. In a few cases, squats have lasted for two, three or even six years."[18]

Other groupsEdit

Other groups working for housing justice include Picture the Homeless (New York City), MORE (Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment - St. Louis), Right 2 Survive (Portland, Oregon), Organizing for Occupation (New York City), PUSH (People United for Sustainable Housing - Buffalo, New York), ONE DC (Washington DC), LIFFT (Low Income Families Fighting Together - Miami).[14] In Minnesota, a group known as the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign has relocated families into thirteen empty properties, and one national organizer likened the advocacy and service work of her group to "a modern-day underground railroad".[12]

Non-profit advocacyEdit

There are non-profit advocacy groups in existence in many cities throughout the U.S. that give organizational backing and political power to the plight of squatters. The nonprofits also assist the squatters to have the work on improving their apartments legitimized, or approved by the appropriate local authority.

In New York City, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board was at the forefront of a homesteading movement in the 1970s and 1980s, and more recently liaised with the city to legitimize the efforts of squatters in 11 buildings in the Lower East Side.[2] Although the New York City government had previously forcibly removed many squatters in the 1990s, in 2002 it agreed to sell these 11 buildings for $1 each to UHAB. The buildings were to be brought up to code by the squatters (with UHAB's assistance) and then the apartments were bought for $250 each and the buildings converted to affordable cooperatives by the former squatters.[2]

New York CityEdit

Sign at C-Squat.

In New York City, homeless people squatting in underground spaces such as Freedom Tunnel have come to be known as Mole People. They were the subject of an award-winning documentary called Dark Days.

It is estimated that in the 1990s, there were between 500 and 1,000 squatters occupying 32 buildings on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The buildings had been abandoned as a result of speculation by owners or police raids as part of a crackdown on drug use.[25] As the area became gentrified, the squats were evicted, Dos Blockos being one. Three buildings on 13th Street were evicted without notification following a prolonged legal battle in which the squatters argued through their lawyer Stanley Cohen that they were entitled to ownership of the buildings through adverse possession since they had lived there since 1983.[26]

In 1995, a preliminary injunction had been granted against the eviction plans, but this was overturned by state appellate.[27]

Despite squatting being illegal, artists had begun to occupy buildings. European squatters coming to New York brought ideas of cooperative living with them such as bars, support between squats, and tool exchange.[13]

In 2002, eleven squats out of the twelve remaining on the Lower East Side signed a deal with the city council brokered by the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. In this project, UHAB bought the buildings for $1 each and agreed to assist the squatters to undertake essential renovation work, after which their apartments could be bought for $250 each. UHAB would also train them in running low-income limited-equity housing cooperatives.[25] After prices peaked from the housing boom, several of the squatters told press that they wanted out of the contract so they could be allowed to sell their units at market rate prices. No such arrangements have been made, but some squatters are challenging the contract and believe adverse possession protects their ownership claim.[28]

The first squat to complete co-op conversion in May 2009 is Bullet Space, an artists' gallery and residence.[29] Another is C-Squat; as well as social center ABC No Rio, which was founded in 1980. In 2012, the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space opened at C-Squat. The museum, a living archive of urban activism, offers guided walking tours of community squats.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Nickelsville moves, but new location may be illegal, King 5 News, 2009-09-18, retrieved 2018-01-06
  2. ^ a b c Ferguson, Sarah (August 27, 2002), "Better Homes and Squatters: New York's Outlaw Homesteaders Earn the Right to Stay", The Village Voice
  3. ^ Netter, Sarah (2010-08-23), "Anti-Government Sovereign Citizens Taking Foreclosed Homes Using Phony Deeds, Authorities Say", ABC NEWS
  4. ^ Bernstein, Maxine (2011-04-22), "A homeowner startled to find squatter living in the Portland house he bought out of foreclosure", The Oregonian
  5. ^ Roberts, Chris (2011-05-20), "After Foreclosure, Woman Breaks Back into, Squats", NBC
  6. ^ Willis, Bob (2011-04-22), "'Squatter Rent' May Boost Spending as Mortgage Holders Bail", Bloomberg
  7. ^ TAYLOR, RONALD B. (1988-06-27). "Mining--a Golden Opportunity for Squatters?". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved 2018-12-06.
  8. ^ Jackson, Donald (January 9, 1970). "Whose Wilderness?". LIFE Magazine. 69 (1): 110 – via Original article cannot be found elsewhere online, scanned copy available on however.
  9. ^ Potter, Lee Ann; Schamel, Wynell (1997). "The Homestead Act of 1862". Social Education. 61 (6): 359–364.
  10. ^ Larson, Aaron (17 January 2015). "Adverse Possession". ExpertLaw. Retrieved 7 January 2018.
  11. ^ Trespass at Will: Squatting as Direct Action, Human Right and Justified Theft, Wiegand, Erin. 2004
  12. ^ a b c Leland, John (April 9, 2009), "With Advocates' Help, Squatters Call Foreclosures Home", New York Times
  13. ^ a b Pruijt, Hans (2003). "Is the institutionalization of urban movements inevitable? A comparison of the opportunities for sustained squatting in New York City and Amsterdam". International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 27 (1): 133–157. doi:10.1111/1468-2427.00436. hdl:1765/19213.
  14. ^ a b Dobbz, Hannah (2012). Nine-Tenths of the Law: Property and Resistance in the United States. AK Press.
  15. ^ "U.S. Acts in Philadelphia Squatters Case". The New York Times. July 13, 1981.
  16. ^ "Squatters and City Battle for Abandoned Buildings". The New York Times. August 2, 1985.
  17. ^ a b "New York Turns Squatters into Homeowners". The New York Times. October 12, 1987. Retrieved 5 January 2013.
  18. ^ a b Corr, Anders. No Trespassing! Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1999. pp. 17–18, 22–24.
  19. ^ "Activists Occupy Vacant Building". The Seattle Times. May 20, 1991.
  20. ^ "Arion To Become Low-Income Housing". The Seattle Times. June 6, 1991.
  21. ^ "Arion Court Reopens to Homeless". The Seattle Times. December 13, 1994.
  22. ^ "Pacific Hotel To Be Renovated Into Low-Income Housing". The Seattle Times. October 27, 1994.
  23. ^ "Buildings 'Need to be Opened Up'Buildings `Need To Be Opened Up' -- Injured Housing Activist Labors For The Low-Income". The Seattle Times. June 12, 1991.
  24. ^ Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez (December 19, 2008), Take Back the Land: Miami Grassroots Group Moves Struggling Families into Vacant Homes, Democracy Now!, retrieved April 2, 2009
  25. ^ a b Neuwirt, Robert (1 September 2002). "Squatters' Rites". Retrieved 7 January 2018.
  26. ^ Lueck T Police Evict Squatters From Three City-Owned Tenements in the East Village in The New York Times August 14, 1996 Available online
  27. ^ Ciezadlo A Squatters' Rites: Taking Liberties - A Brief History of New York City's Squats in City Limits Magazine Available online
  28. ^ Anderson, Lincoln (December 31, 2008), "Former Squats Worth Lots, But Residents Can't Cash In", The Villager
  29. ^ Grieve, EV (May 12, 2009), "Bullet Space is the first of the former LES squats to take over ownership of building from city", EV GRIEVE

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit