In Philadelphia, when you die and do not have a will, several things can happen:
- Your relatives petition Orphans Court to get a hold of your house
When it happens to be the latter, the dead leave in their wake new property that’s added to Philadelphia’s vast kingdom of riches; ruled by an assortment of the deceased. Since the dead cannot maintain the the property, un-elected caretakers do it for them. Often they take the form of squatters.
It’s easy to understand why vacant rowhomes become re-occupied by freeloading squatters. Without a housing payment to make, life is a breeze. Connecting cable, lights and gas is quite simple: call customer service and explain that you just moved in as a tenant. Connecting the water to a vacant property is slightly more difficult (the Water Department doesn’t do tenant services), unless you have one of these:
You and I would consider something like this to be highly illegal. It is. It happens to be burglary and breaking-and-entering, but only for a few hours. If you’re stealthy enough to get into the property and stay unnoticed by the neighbors for a couple of weeks until you can get some utilities put in your name, then you’re good. Now you can let your hair down and maybe kick out a few windows of your free house to celebrate.
Now you’re thinking: “oh well, can’t someone just call the police when something like this happens?” Poor you, this is Philadelphia, where people have rights. When you steal a house of a dead person or an investment property of a living person, you aren’t committing a crime, you’re a new homeowner to be treasured and loved. Philadelphia Police can’t do much when it’s been months since the squatter moved in.
Is this a new problem? No. This has been a staple of real estate reality in Philadelphia for a long time. The houses in Philadelphia where this is happening most often are rental properties not being looked after frequently enough for the owners to report the B/E, and the houses of the recently departed.
Take the case of 2218 E Hagert Street, a 2 story bungalow just blocks from my own house. Poor Charlotte Ditty (RIP) owned this house and took great care of it. However, no relatives were around to claim the house after she died. It stayed vacant for 2 years, but word spread of the vacancy. Wasn’t long before Philadelphia’s network of professional freeloaders soon learned of it and swiftly moved in.
A hooker has been living off and on in the property as well as two adult males. It won’t be long before open-air dealing surfaces at this house. Hopefully with enough PPD complaints and 311 tickets every time the front garden becomes a mess, the squatters may feel unwelcome enough to leave.
And it will be a while before this house is eligible for Sheriff’s Sale. It takes $2,500 in liens for a private citizen to initiate one. Since it only started owing back since in 2010, it will take 3 more years to get this property put into the private market. Hopefully it won’t be completely destroyed on the inside by then.