What is America if not a giant squat on someone else's land?
One of the best subplots of HBO's Silicon Valley this season was exploring how broke people manage to find housing in one of America's most expensive cities. The answer, as it turns out, is squatting: In one episode, an Airbnb guest declines to move out of an expensive condo; later, a tenant simply decides to stop paying rent, announcing that he can stay there for one year before being forcibly evicted.
While those plots are obviously fictional, there are plenty of broke Americans who are struggling to pay their rent every month. Which raises the question: How long, and under what circumstances, can someone live on a property, rent-free, without penalty of the law?
The most basic form of rent-free living is squatting, or occupying an abandoned home or building. Rules vary from state to state, but for the most part, the law is on the side of squatters. Let's say you move into an abandoned house in California, for example. If you discover who the owner is, you can offer to maintain the property in return for a free place to stay. If you can't locate the owner, you can stake a claim to the property and stay there until the owner asks you to leave. Rules vary from state to state, but in California, if you pay the property taxes on an abandoned property for five years, the property becomes yours free and clear.
Originally, these laws were meant to protect people from getting evicted every time the landlord wants to squeeze more money out of a unit, like kicking out decades-long tenants to turn their apartments into Airbnb rentals. The laws also reward tenants who act as stewards of neglected property, which is known as the doctrine of "adverse possession."
Matt Derrick, who has run the squatter resource Squat the Planet since 2001, said legal squatting can help homeless or low-income people find places to live in cities where there are literally "tens of thousands of abandoned properties."
"I remember squatting in New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina, which was a fairly positive experience," Derrick told VICE. "Folks in that neighborhood were just happy to have people occupying a property that could be a crack den or burned down by arsonists otherwise. Eventually, the property did get sold to someone, and we didn't really put up a fight when they came to inspect the property. We just moved elsewhere."
If and when the owner of an abandoned property shows up, the squatter needs the owner's permission to stay there. Without it, they have to leave. But with it, the person can be considered a tenant—whether or not they pay rent—which grants a person a long list of rights, including protection from being immediately arrested and charged with trespassing.
"A tenant is simply someone who is in a unit with an owner's permission," said Frances Campbell, a tenant right's lawyer with Los Angeles firm Campbell & Farahani LLP, in an interview with VICE.
The "owner's permission" part, though, is where things can get murky. Let's say a landlord discovers someone has moved into a vacant apartment, and the landlord wants this person out. "The landlord could say, 'I didn't give you permission to live here,' and the tenant can say, 'Why, yes you did!'" Campbell explained. "As long as that person claims they are not a trespasser, we have an argument that the person is not a trespasser but a tenant-at-will.'"
In that case, the matter has turned from criminal to civil. The landlord can't just have the person physically removed as a trespasser, and must instead go through the eviction process in civil court. During that period, landlords cannot do anything to harass the unwelcome resident out, like changing the locks or turning off utilities. In essence, a person could conceivably move into a unit, set up shop, and live in there until his or her day in court, without paying a dime.
"All told, I lived rent-free for a year and a half." — Warren Sandwell
Campbell said the process typically only takes six to eight weeks. "It's a common myth that it'll take six months or a year," she told VICE, but "once the tenant responds, a landlord can demand a trial, and the trial must be set in 20 days. When someone does sit there [rent free] for months and months, it could be that the landlord's lawyer is not particularly competent."
Besides breaking into someone else's property, there are other ways to get off the hook for the rent. If a property changes hands and a new lease is not instated, the tenants are legally off the hook for the rent. That's what happened to Warren Sandwell when his house in Springfield, Missouri, changed ownership.
"After living in my house for four years, I called my landlord one summer to get my broken AC fixed, and he said, 'I don't own your house anymore,'" Sandwell told VICE. "So it didn't get fixed. After three months, the bank that had acquired the house contacted me. They said that they were now the owners of the house and that I needed to start paying them rent immediately. I told them that we had no binding lease agreement and that if they wanted rent, they would have to fix my AC and begin maintaining my property as landlord."
As he hadn't been served an eviction notice, Sandwell didn't have to go anywhere or pay anything in order to continue legally living in his house. Which is exactly what he did. And when the bank refused to fix the AC, Sandwell quit paying rent. "I didn't hear from them for a year, when they suddenly gave me 90 days to move out," he told VICE. "All told, I lived rent-free for a year and a half."
In these cases, Campbell said there's a clear dispute over whether or not someone qualifies as a "tenant." But other cases are more clear-cut.
"An Airbnb guest becomes a tenant the moment they move in," Campbell told VICE. If the building in question is rent-controlled, landlords can only legally evict someone for "good cause," which means it's almost impossible to kick him or her out. (If the building is not rent-controlled, landlords have a little more leeway in evicting tenants.)
"Let's say you're a tenant in a rent-controlled apartment, and you go to France for a month and rent out your place on Airbnb. You come back, and the guest is like, 'Eh, I don't want to leave.' By renting out your place on Airbnb, you have become a landlord," Campbell explained. "That person is now a tenant with tenancy rights, and you cannot evict them without good cause. It's a nightmare."
Consider the Pashanin brothers, who paid for a 30-day stay at an Airbnb in Palm Springs and then refused to leave, claiming tenant's rights. Eventually, the brothers vacated the condo in the middle of the night—a full six weeks after they were supposed to.
Which is to say, while you can live for free in a variety of situations, you should be wary about who you let into your own house. In some cases, they just may never leave.
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