The Paper or the People? Bill in City Council would toss out squatters and people with verbal leases in less than 48 hours

Image caption: A giant police officer shakes a house, launching residents out the front doorway. The caption says “Evicted!”

By Andrew Sejong; Artwork by G.R.

On February 15th, city council held its first public hearing to hear testimony on a new bill against “squatting.”

What is squatting? Squatting is occupying a building without owning it, paying rent for it, or having permission from the owner. Whereas trespassing also involves illegally being on property, squatting includes living and claiming a right to live on a property. For example, squatters will actually be living in the property and claim a legal right, or have some documentation, demonstrating that they have some arrangement to live on this property. However, in other cases, squatters are simply living in a vacant building because no one is using it and they need a place to stay.

The new bill was put forward by Republican City Councilman David Oh and has been a rallying cry for landlords across Philadelphia. It does two main things. First, it clearly defines squatting as a crime punishable by up to $300 in fines and/or 90 days in jail for each day the squatter fails to vacate the property. Second, once the police are called, accused squatters must produce credible evidence that they have a right to be there within 48 hours. If such evidence is presented, then the accused squatter and property owner go to court to settle the matter.

Both Community Legal Services and Public Interest Law Center raised concerns about this legislation, writing in a joint statement: “The bill seems to assume that people with the right to be in a property will naturally have written documents to prove their rights, and that those documents are readily available to the occupant.”

Pennsylvania recognizes oral leases as valid and enforceable by law. According to the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections, thousands of Philadelphians live under such agreements. These are simply spoken promises to house someone. Tenants that are living based on spoken promises from their landlords won’t have serious documentation to contest claims that they are squatting. Landlords already use verbal lease agreements and shoddy documentation to evict tenants. This bill creates a loophole whereby landlords can accelerate the process and evict a tenant in just 48 hours.

Moreover, this bill further empowers the police to expand their role in the ongoing eviction crisis in Philadelphia. As Michael Barry, former Deputy of the Pretrial Division in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, said during his testimony to city council: “[W]hat we’re doing is empowering the police to do what they already have the power to do, which is arrest people for committing felonies.”

Under this bill, accused squatters have 48 hours to present credible evidence to the police that they have the right to live on a property — and the police determine what is credible often through duress. As Matthew White, representative of the Philadelphia Police Commission’s legal team, explained before City Council, one tool the bill hopes to give to the PPD is the right to bring accused squatters to detective offices to be questioned: “I think having a mechanism to compel them to that venue [detective office] to sign an official statement with the detective would be to the benefit of resolving these issues.” When asked whether 48 hours is sufficient for the accused squatter to gather the necessary documents to write a complete and honest statement, Mr. White stated, “I don’t know what the answer is, but I think if you are compelling people to a detective division, then you’re talking about something that’s taking place in a matter of hours, single digit hours, not 48 hours.”

A police department as corrupt and racist as the PPD has no place determining whether thousands of Philadelphians on verbal lease agreements have credible evidence. We should not trust that the PPD will do what is necessary to protect the rights of poor tenants, often Black and Brown, against the interests of landlords.  

Squatting is simply not a problem for the average Philadelphian. This is a problem for absentee property owners. To defend this small class of people, this bill is willing to risk the living situations of thousands of Philadelphians who rent on verbal leases. The main housing problem in Philadelphia is not squatting — it is rising rents, house prices, and homelessness. Wealthy individuals who leave properties empty and often in states of disrepair do not deserve a single ounce of additional support while thousands of Philadelphians flock to shelters every year and many more sleep in the streets.

A home can raise your kids; you can grow old in it or sell it to afford your retirement. It can also be a piece of paper with your name on it — a quick flip investment. A home is more than just four walls and a roof over your head, but this issue boils down to a simple question. Who has the right to the space between these four walls? The name on the paper or the people living between the walls?

What is the purpose of those four walls? To make someone rich? Or to take someone off the streets?

Who do the police, the judge and the law respect — the paper or the people?

As Stephanie Altimari, an organizer with the Philadelphia Tenants Union, said before city council:

As of 2015, there were about 25,000 abandoned properties in Philadelphia, and probably an equal amount of homeless people. They all seek shelter, and they all deserve shelter. It is often conveniently forgotten that homeless people are citizens, too. There’s no reason those properties cannot be turned into designated affordable housing, rather than a profit mill for developers.

We believe “People over profit” — every single time.

. . .

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