Yes, squatting is breaking the law, but so is attacking them with bats
There are craploads of misinformation spread around Philadelphia in every neighborhood whenever the subject of squatting arises. There are also tales of unbelievable but actually real cases of monumental efforts that some property owners have had to endure in order to rid themselves of squatters. A recent case in Germantown is about to put your knowledge skills to the test.
Over at 24 E Tuplehocken Street in a picturesque part of Germantown sits a split Victorian twin multifamily. The owner, Frank Kaiem, lives in one of the units–or at least he says he does since the house is claiming the full $30,000 Homestead Exemption which seems a bit fishy since landlords who live in their own buildings are only entitled to a homestead exemption divided by the square footage their living space takes up in the entire structure. But, whatever.
Somehow, and with Frank living there, squatters appeared and occupied the top unit of the structure. Doesn’t seem plausible at first but hey… there’s partition walls when the house was chopped up and maybe Frank wasn’t outside so much to see lights turned on the third floor to suspect maybe he wasn’t the one who left them on. Either way, Frank discovered he had squatters.
You can try to talk squatters out, but when you can’t, you call the police
As far as I can tell from 6ABC’s story, Frank followed the best advice out there. If you can’t get squatters to clear when cajoling them out of your home, you call the police. That’s great. Seems like Frank did that.
Baseball bats are not recommended
Three people living inside the squat claim, according to 6ABC at least, that Frank threatened them with a bat during an argument. Sigh.
Let me tell you something about squatting in a Philly home.
You have 2 weeks to get rid of squatters when they first appear, or else you’re fucked
Police will only treat a break-in as a burglary for a short while between entry and when they’re first discovered. If you do not install an alarm system or any other kinds of security measures or monitoring and do not visit the property in at least two week stretches, you are going to be fucked over. Intact rowhomes are very desirable to squatters. Especially intact rowhomes in nice neighborhoods like Germantown.
Why is the time limit two weeks?
That’s about how long it takes for a squatter to get some sort of utility put into their name or manage to falsify documents claiming they live in the property, such as creating a fake lease or a fake copy of a deed abstract. Most squatters in Philly however will contact a utility company such as cable (Comcast is pricey so usually it’s Dish Network) or electric or water, and inform them they are now renting the unit and responsible for the bill. Once they can get a piece of paper with their name and your property address on it, they’ve just nailed down their “right” to occupy the squat.
When the police come when you call them, they are going to interview you. Then, they are going to interview the squatters. Philadelphia Police must hear both arguments and the cop may ask for proof to be produced that you rent there. Once a cop sees what they believe to be a valid proof such as a water bill with their name and the property address on it? Game over.
You must go to court. Do not pass GO. You will pay > $200.
If police refuse to eject the squatters and treat them as the burglars that they are—sorry. There is a grey area between burglarizing a house and simply squatting. If you catch the squatter quickly enough the cops are instructed to treat it as a burglary when the occupant presents no valid proof that they actually live there. When there is some sort of proof the cop sees, the cop will tell you that you must go to court.
And the cops are right about that.
What you must do is petition the Court of Common Pleas and seek a writ of ejectment. Unless you have already petitioned a court before for one of these, you are going to need the services of a lawyer to prepare one of these petitions for you. They are not exactly boilerplate complaints.
You also cannot use the Landlord-Tenant Court for this type of case. Landlord-Tenant Court is only for disputes arising directly out of rental contracts. Squatters don’t have leases, so that doesn’t apply. If this is a tenant overstaying their lease–that is not a squatter–that’s still Landlord-Tenant Court and you can use Landlord-Tenant Court in that one instance. If these people came out of nowhere or it’s an old tenant who broke back in? Common Pleas Court you must go.
And this process is not cheap by any means. This is the price Philadelphia is making you pay for not keeping tabs on your property, even if you’re like poor Frank here who is living in it.
I know this sucks, but that’s what the rules are in Philly.
Playing “hunt the gopher” with squatters
One thing you can do while you’re waiting for the legal process to play out–which is going to add months to the squatters occupying your property–is getting utilities shut off. My recommendation is to play a rotating game of shutoffs. As you work to get one utility shutoff, work on the next. While the squatters are working to get the utility you turned off turned back on again, shut another one off. Gas takes the longest to disconnect so call-in the disconnect order on the gas first and especially if it’s summertime when PGW is more than willing to do gas disconnect. You can also request a construction gas disconnect by taking out a permit at L&I to do some work without any intention of actually completing the workto get the gas disconnect processed a bit quicker (it helps if the gas line runs through a yard that would have to be dug).
Squatters are fairly adept at living without gas service, so the next step is water–the utility almost no squatter can live without. Most water service runs to basements and that valve is simple to turn back on. What you need for outside shutoff is to have the Philadelphia Water Department come disconnect that the curb box. That is done with a device called a water key.
Some very professional squatters however have their own water keys. I’ve personally witnessed a couple of Kensington squatters come out of their house they were squatting in, pull out a T-shaped water key, and within 2 minutes get the water back on. If your squatter is that adept you have one option left—if the house has failed plumbing (i.e. the toilet is emptying into the basement), you need to put pressure on your City Councilperson to get a water lateral shutoff. Once the City comes to dig up a water lateral, squatters leave within minutes. Not having access to water almost always makes most squatters leave although I have heard of a few rare cases where some made-do and would send their kids outside naked with a bar of soap whenever it rains.
Electricity is one of the tougher battles. PECO believes just about any story they hear when someone calls them. Like with gas,one way to guarantee permanent shutoff is to order construction work on the property by taking out permits to upgrade the service. Then, tell the electrical contractor to leave after the meter has been removed and install a meter cover over the spot where the meter once was–you’ll finish the panel upgrades later. And although this happens regularly, adept squatters are willing to play with hot current to tie the four meter lug posts back together. I had this case in my own neighborhood with a squat house 4 years ago. After about 2 dozen or so calls and emailing their public relations officer, a truck pulled up one day and severed the house’s mains at the distribution line.
That’s what the rules are in this town with squatters. If you can’t deal with this risk or do anything to mitigate it (hint: security alarms, check on your investments regularly), I strongly suggest you do not invest in property in Philadelphia.