Wikipedia has over 26 articles addressing the matter of squatting in the United States. By squatting I do not mean the crouching position or the exercise technique, but the housing practice. We've covered this topic before, but that was mostly focused on the concept of squatting as it relates to adverse possession and had a whole bunch of cat analogies. We've never really addressed it as an alternative housing strategy.
There are a lot of reasons why someone would choose to squat instead of taking on a lease in their name. They may have a blemished history that prevents them from getting approved for a lease. They may be morally opposed to the concept of contracts or paying for housing. They may not have the financial werewithal to pay rent on any market rate home. They may be on a wait list for subsidized housing, which can keep them in a holding pattern for years if not decades. They may be staying past the deadline after a legitimate lease expires or after a bank has foreclosed on their house. They may be the significant other of the lease holder and just spending the night a lot, unaware that by doing so they're breaking the law.
No matter the reason, it's time to stop ignoring the existence of squatting or treating it like it's a universally bad thing, always done with malicious intent. Renters know it happens, landlords know it happens. I'm not going to preach at you about it. This a guide to practical squatting for renters. However, before we get into the details I want to start with a warning.
Everything we are about to discuss here is illegal. In Illinois it is considered trespassing and therefore can be treated as a Class B misdemeanor punishable with eviction, jail time and/or fines. It is not likely to be legalized at any point in the future. If you choose to squat in an apartment or house you do so at your own risk. We do not endorse it, nor are we encouraging you to consider it as a viable option unless you have no other choice except the streets.
What is squatting?
Squatting is staying on or in a property that you do not own without the permission or awareness of the real owner. It is estimated that as many as 1 in 7 people in the world are squatting in housing on any given night. It is a heavily disputed means of obtaining shelter for governments globally. There are non-profit groups that advocate for squatters as an alternative to homelessness. There are non-profit groups that seek to evict and jail all squatters.
It is not something that is endemic to any particular subset of the population, but rather has been used by everyone. Wealthy homeowners facing foreclosure, religious cults camping on park land, enthusiastic new girlfriends, undocumented immigrants, college students home for the summer, college students at school for the semester and punk artist collectives all have been known to use squatting as a means of finding shelter.
Unlike its cousin adverse possession which arises out of owner apathy, squatting does not have to be open or notorious. In fact, most of the time it is done without the knowledge of the owner.
Why are owners so hostile to squatters?
Screening consistency. A landlord must assume that any occupant they haven't screened is an unemployed meth manufacturer and pedophile with a history of evictions and bankruptcy. Screening exists to disprove each of these traits about every single applicant who wishes to rent in an apartment building. No landlord wants to find out that they were housing a convicted criminal unawares. No neighbor wants to find out that they share a building with a criminal due to the negligence of their landlord. If a landlord has an established screening protocol for all lease holders, then they can be sued by someone who is denied housing for failing the screening process if it is discovered that they have un-screened squatters staying in the building.
Occupancy limits. Some landlords have maximum occupancy rules for their apartments. They may be open to some negotiation to allow a group of roommates to exceed those limits, but usually they will want more rent for treating the place as if it has more bedrooms than it actually does.
Risk management. Evictions become far more complicated if there are squatters on the property that the landlord has not made a good faith effort to remove. If a fire or similar disaster occurs at a property, it is crucial that someone in charge knows how many people are likely to be in the building so that first responders can be as thorough as possible in rescuing everybody.
Complicating property transfers. A landlord who assumes a squatted apartment is empty may rent it out again sight unseen, resulting in a hostile collision between the new legitimate tenants and the squatters. Similar situations can occur for property owners who attempt to sell the property.
Not every squat is meant to be used as housing. Squatters will not restrict their locations to residential property. Abandoned barns, warehouses and even empty land have all be used by squatters. Building codes designed to protect residents and their children such as lead paint and asbestos removal are often only applied to residential buildings. The 2016 Ghost Ship fire in Oakland resulted in 36 deaths partially because the warehouse had been used by squatters that had put an excessive load on its electrical system.
Adverse Possession laws. In most states, if a landlord or owner allows squatting to continue despite knowing about it for too long, the squatter can become the default owner of the property due to the laws of adverse possession. It takes a long time for this to happen. In Illinois the limit is 20 years. Most landlords and owners will step in to stop squatting or sell the property long before 2 decades have elapsed, but it is something that an owner must consider when it comes to strangers living on their land.
I'm staying with a friend while I'm on vacation. How long can I stay before I become a squatter?
In Illinois there is no explicit definition of how long a guest can stay before they become a trespasser. Rather, trespassing begins as soon as someone with at least partial right of possession to the property decides that the guest is no longer welcome. That someone can be one of the lease holders or the landlord, but not the occupants of another apartment in the building.
Usually landlords will allow some lenience for guests. You can have small parties. You can have your folks in for a short while to help take care of a new baby. You can let your friend from out of town crash on your couch for a few days. But in the absence of city or state laws, many leases will build in a time limit after which those guests must leave. I have frequently seen clauses stating that if any individual sleeps for more than 14 days at a property in the course of a year, they must be added to the lease. If such a clause exists, the number of days will usually be anywhere from 2 to 21, rarely exceeding a month.
If no such clause exists in a lease, that does not mean you have carte blanche to squat there. It's still illegal, but the landlord probably has yet to encounter it in their career so they haven't been forced to add something about it to their standard lease form.
Even if such a clause exists, you are there at the sufferance of the lease holder and the owner. If they say that you have to leave and you haven't reached the time limit specified in the lease, you still have to leave.
I'm squatting with a roommate who has a month-to-month verbal agreement with their landlord. Is it still illegal?
Yes. The difference between you and the roommate with the agreement is that the landlord has granted permission for your roommate to live there. Even though there may only be a verbal agreement between them, the landlord may still have screened that person to ensure that they're on the up and up. They don't have that trust when it comes to you.
If a landlord discovers I am squatting, what happens?
In Illinois, a landlord who is certain of the existence of a squatter will begin by delivering a 10 day cure or quit notice to the property addressed to the actual lease holder and all unknown occupants. Upon receiving this notice the lease holder has 10 days to get you out of there. If you're still there at the end of 10 days, the landlord can then begin eviction proceedings against you and everyone else in the apartment, including the actual lease holders. As the eviction suit will name the lease holders and "unknown occupants" you may not actually wind up with an eviction on your record, but your roommates will.
Of course, that's the legal way of doing things. Landlords have been known to go to great lengths to remove squatters from their property, many of which are just as illegal as the actual squatting. Do not assume that the landlord in your situation will follow proper procedure. They may resort to cutting off utilities, changing the locks or throwing your belongings out on the curb without a court order, all of which is against the law. If you are squatting and a landlord attempts to throw you out by any method other than the 10 day notice followed by an eviction suit, then you need to be getting yourself to an attorney post haste.
My friend let me put my name on their mailbox so my kids could get into a better public school. Is that squatting?
No, although if you repeatedly visit the property to collect mail delivered to that box it can be considered trespassing. It can put your friend at risk if the landlord notices and assumes that you're living there. It is also considered to be enrollment fraud, which can be punished by a permanent ban for all of your children from the public school system in Chicago.
How do I avoid getting caught?
Cure or quit cases are some of the toughest for landlords to win in eviction court. Not all cure or quit cases involve squatters. It is a catchall for any behavioral problems ranging from pets to smoking to noise as well. It's a far less common route than the 5 day pay or quit option or the 30 day non-renewal option.
Because it's such a difficult type of eviction to win, a landlord is not going to attempt the legal route until they are certain that they have sufficient proof. If you must squat, you need to make sure that the landlord, their employees and any private investigators they hire have no way to amass enough proof to get beyond reasonable doubt in a courtroom.
Tell the landlord that you're there. This is the aboveboard route. You might be there for a legitimate reason, like cleaning out the apartment after the actual lease holder has died. You might have a new baby or your kid might flunk out of college and move back home. All of these are technically squatting. Some landlords might not care. You say, "Hi, I'm living here now" and they say "Ok enjoy" and everything is peachy. It's worth a shot.
Of course, if you know that they're not going to be receptive to your presence then you need to take a more sneaky approach to it. Take your copy of The Diary of Anne Frank in hand and get ready to go underground.
Do not park near the property. Consistent appearance of the same tags or car overnight for a long period of time is one very common form of proof.
Avoid security cameras if it's dark outside. Unless the landlord can prove that you're sleeping at the property, they can't prove that you're squatting. (They can, however, prove that you're trespassing.) If the sun has gone down outside, avoid being caught on camera in lobbies, hallways or common areas.
Don't use any common facilities at the building. This includes the laundry room, the storage lockers, the bike room, exercise room or pool.
Don't put your name on the mailbox. The most consistent proof of residence at a property is receiving mail there. Get a PO Box or use a family member's address rather than your squat if you have to receive mail.
Don't put the squat address on any bills. Don't use it to get a library card, don't put it on your credit card bills or bank statements, don't put it on your cell phone account.
Randomize your arrival and departure times. If you're always arriving in the evening and leaving in the morning, it's going to be pretty obvious that you're sleeping at the property even if you aren't. Landlords who suspect squatting will often stake out the property for a few days or even weeks to watch who's coming and going. Mix it up a bit.
Sleep elsewhere sometimes. Try to avoid spending more than a few nights in a row at any given squat. Rotate your locations so that any observers are less likely to be able to prove that you're calling the place home.
Don't let your name appear on rent payments. Don't pay the rent yourself. Don't deliver rent checks to the landlord's office.
Don't make any maintenance requests. If anything breaks, repairs must be requested by a legit lease holder. If none of you are legit, you're S.O.L. Also, this should be obvious, but if maintenance workers are going to be coming in to fix something you need to be somewhere else during that time.
Know the schedules for inspections. Some landlords do regular inspections of their properties throughout the year. Apartments occupied by voucher holders must be inspected by the city housing authority at least once a year. If they're coming, you need to be gone.
Take all personally identifying info with you whenever you leave. Don't leave anything with your name on it in the squat. Not even your Netflix account. Landlords don't always announce when they're coming into an apartment. Pipes burst and pets escape.
What should I do if I am caught?
Apologize. At its core, squatting is theft of immovable property. Apologize like you were just caught shoplifting. Blubber and grovel like you were caught with a stolen iPhone in your purse.
Find a new place to live immediately. Chances are you've got 10 days at most to decamp to a new location before someone's housing record is permanently damaged and you find yourself in cuffs. Remember that even if an eviction case is found in the tenant's favor, it will still be on their record and affect their ability to find housing for years to come. Don't mess up your friend's record if they were cool and let you stay with them.
It's possible that the landlord may be willing to screen you and add you to the lease, and you can certainly try this route. Chances are if this were an option to begin with you wouldn't be squatting. Expect the worst but work towards the best.
I don't think that squatting will ever fully go away. China has scads of completely empty buildings and even entire empty cities, but they still have problems with squatters. Even if universal housing were provided there would still be house guests outstaying their welcome or young lovers crashing with significant others. As long as land and buildings are viewed as commodities, there will be owners who disapprove of squatters using their land without permission. Unless some global epiphany causes the end of the worldview that some people do not deserve good housing, there will be squatting.
People break laws all the time. They break the speed limit, they shoplift, they nibble on food in the grocery store, they use fake names on social media, they make prank calls. Squatting is on the level with any of these. If you have to do it, do everything to you can to get to a point where you've got legit housing. Know the risks to you and to your roommates. A good squat is far preferable to an unsafe apartment. Proceed in a way that is best and safest for you, just do so with caution.
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