squatters laws in UK, Park Lane squatters, US squatters laws
Associated Press
Photographers stand outside the two £15
mansions on Park Lane,
which have been taken over by squatters.

Artists Squat in Posh London Buildings

January 23, 2009 03:02 PM
by Anne Szustek
A group of 20 artists has taken stead in two mansions on London’s Park Lane thought to be owned by the Duke of Westminster. UK law is on their side; what is the case in America?

Squatter Hipsters Move on to Park Lane

Since late November, a troupe of 20 artists, ranging in age from their early 20s to their mid-40s, and three large dogs have been living in two buildings on London’s Park Lane believed to be owned by the Duke of Westminster, the third-richest man in the United Kingdom, according to the Sunday Times of London’s Rich List, as quoted by Reuters.

Park Lane is one of London’s toniest neighborhoods—if this is any indication, it’s the second-most expensive property on the U.K. version of board game Monopoly. Within a short walk from the buildings is the London branch of famed sushi restaurant Nobu, and an Aston Martin dealership. These particular buildings, which overlook London’s Hyde Park, are estimated to be worth some £30 million ($39 million), although a real estate agent at nearby Mayfair’s Harrods Estates would not give Reuters solid numbers.

“It’s better for a building to be occupied than empty,” Simon McAndrew, 29, a one-time fashion industry hairdresser told The Washington Post. “We’re artists, and we’re doing something good with the space,” he continued, saying he and his associates have taken over other unoccupied buildings in the past.

Britain's Land Registration Act of 2002 states that squatting is not illegal, and landlords must file court possession orders to evict unofficial tenants. Plus, in the United Kingdom, trespassing is classified as a civil, rather than a criminal, offense. In practice, squatters must do physical damage to a property for the police to be able to intervene.

According to British tabloid The Sun, the apartments are now strewn with the artists’ works, ashtrays and “mess from the three dogs,” as UK paper The Daily Telegraph wrote.

Neighborhood reaction has been mixed. Local authorities have no plans to evict the artists. A spokesperson for the Duke of Westminster did not comment for The Daily Telegraph.

Westminster Homeowners’ Association member Ian Brimhurst told The Daily Telegraph that the squatters were “blighting” the neighborhood. But others in the area are more nonchalant. “If the landlords leave the building empty and don’t care, the squatters have the right to be here and have a roof over their heads,” a local resident who chose to remain nameless told Reuters.

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Background: Tent cities, adverse possession, squatters’ rights in the United States

Homeless coalitions all over the country have been caught off guard by the rapidly increasing number of tent cities popping up to accommodate those disenfranchised by the recession. Michael Stoops, acting director for the National Coalition for the Homeless, told the Associated Press, “The economy is in chaos, we’re in an unofficial recession and Americans are worried, from the homeless to the middle class, about their future.” He predicts that as things get worse, the number of homeless residents will increase.
In Reno, Nevada, 150 people now live in a parking lot near the railroad tracks. The area is scheduled to become an official shelter, but for now, people are allowed to pitch tents and become temporary residents. Other cities, such as Santa Barbara, Seattle, Athens, Ga., and Ontario, Calif., also have tent cities.

In December 2007, 20 residents of Ontario, Calif., hit hard by financial struggles, made a camp near the railroad tracks of their hometown. The number of “Tent City” residents quickly grew to 200, including families with children. Residents represented all races, and included veterans, addicts, former convicts, people unable to pay rent and the rare victim of foreclosure.

 By March 2008, the number of people had increased to 400 and Ontario police intervened to evict any squatter who could not prove that they had been a resident of Ontario prior to settling in Tent City.

U.S. laws on squatters’ rights, also known as adverse possession, vary widely from state to state. Generally, however, laws stipulate that to be able to lay legal claim to occupied property, a squatter must have used the property in question continuously for the length of time predetermined by the law, which can be as short as five or as long as 30 years.

The rationale for the laws is that property should be used. “If you don’t use it and someone else does, they’ll end up owning it,” Denver real estate lawyer Willis V. Carpenter was quoted as saying by the Chicago Tribune. Most adverse possession cases involve small border questions between neighbors that are often solved out of court.

In 2007, the New York state legislature passed a law that would stop anyone who was deliberately occupying someone else’s property from obtaining it under adverse possession laws. It was vetoed by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer because “efforts to prove the person’s state of mind would lead to more litigation,” as the Chicago Tribune wrote.

Squatters’ rights cases do not always involve the financially struggling. In a nationally publicized case, Boulder, Colo., couple Don and Susie Kirlin lost a tract of land they bought in 1984 but never developed to Richard McLean and Edith Stevens, a judge and lawyer, respectively.

Boulder District Judge James C. Klein ruled in 2006 that McLean and Stevens, who had been walking their pets and holding outdoor parties on the Kirlins’ land, had ties to the property “stronger than the true owners’ attachment.” McLean and Stevens were awarded “one-third of the lot next to them.” According to Kirlin, “That decision rendered it too small to sell or to build on,” wrote the Chicago Tribune.

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