Adverse Possession
Why People Squat and How To Do It

by Kirsten Anderberg
May 2, 2004

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Adverse Possession, is squatting, basically, and it occurs in many countries, including the UK, the Netherlands, Scotland, Australia, Canada, Spain, Ireland…as well as in the US, in New York City, Seattle, Boston, San Francisco, DC, Philadelphia, and more. Interestingly, when I was in law school, the students complacently sat through inheritance law and property title law without incident, but when we hit Adverse Possession, all hell broke loose from students fearing they’d lose their land owning privilege. Adverse possession, or legal squatting, has been in place in Europe since the 1400s, and in America since the 1600s. Reasons for squatting vary from political motivations to economic necessities. Some reasons for squatting are bringing community and media attention to the homeless and affordable housing crisis, to save lower income housing from demolition, to create community and lifestyle alternatives, to monkeywrench capitalism, and to challenge land ownership systems.

What would it take for squatting to be more widespread and tolerated? In the past, when the people were starving because landlords were hoarding land and people had nowhere to farm food, eventually, the state let people TAKE land that was sitting idle to grow food as their own, to quell social uprising from starvation. It seems agrarian needs were the first impetus to dismantling greedy landlords in this system we live in. The need for land to grow food on, as well as place your shelter upon, are needs capitalists have exploited, through the mythology of private land ownership, entrapping people into artificial dependencies upon outside third parties for food and shelter. The land was here, owned by no one, for all to share, in the beginning.

The Capitalist Elite (a small sector of the population) learned how to take the land through force, then defend that land by force, then sell it back to people (the majority) at the cost of their labor and servitude. Driving in places like Beverly Hills, you see how the elite are prisoners of gates, fences, bars on their windows, and security systems. Their elaborate attempts to seal themselves off from the people they exploit, takes constant upkeep. Ironically, the exploited worker and renter are also paying for elaborate security systems for the paranoid landlord to feel safe amidst his hoarded riches! The insulated rich man hidden in his fort of an estate, is a good example of why land ownership is NOT good for the masses, or even the insulated rich, and must be maintained by force, at all times, whether we are talking a country border, a taking of land as American history with the American Indians, or simply an estate in Beverly Hills.


Adverse Possession is an interesting legal fiction. The concept is that land that is “unused” does not benefit society, so if you are going to let your land sit wastefully, when someone else could use it and “improve” it, then it benefits society for the person who will use and upgrade it, to have it. Of course this is legal fiction, because there would be no homeless people if this were easily applicable and enforceable. But the usual elements for adverse possession are exclusivity in the possession of the land (one identifiable entity uses it thus the fence, etc.), the possession of the property must be open and hostile to the owner, there is a time period of continuous occupancy that must be met before the title can be transferred, some states require you pay taxes on the land while adversely possessing it, etc. In Washington State, the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 7.28.070 defines adverse possession as “Every person in actual, open and notorious possession of lands or tenements under claim and color of title, made in good faith, and who shall for seven successive years continue in possession, and shall also during said time pay all taxes legally assessed on such lands or tenements, shall be held and adjudged to be the legal owner of said lands or tenements, to the extent and according to the purport of his or her paper title. All persons holding under such possession, by purchase, devise or descent, before said seven years shall have expired, and who shall continue such possession and continue to pay the taxes as aforesaid, so as to complete the possession and payment of taxes for the term aforesaid, shall be entitled to the benefit of this section.”

“Using” and “improving” property are the legal theories adverse possession are built upon. And those words are quite subjective. The legal definitions for land “improvements” for adverse possession tend to be a fence and a garden. American Indians roamed areas without fences and individual gardens, and lived off the land, thereby “using” it, but not via fenced-in individualized portions, thus many argued they were not using their land, and thus it was fine, via adverse possession, for Europeans to steal American Indian land, placing the original inhabitants in a position of dependency. Which is common. Most often when a free people’s land is fenced off and redirected by another, their culture is set askew from it. Sometimes this is intentional, such as the banning of native tongues and celebrations by the American government after its taking of American Indian lands. And to dispossess people of their dignity and rights, people are rounded up off their lands, and placed in concentration camps. In Seattle, during the WWII roundups of Japanese Americans, Pike Place Market farmers disappeared. And their lands were TAKEN by farmers in the area when they disappeared, and many people who were taken in that roundup never got their land back from the people who took their land while illegally rounded up. And now, the old internment camp is the Puyallup Fairgrounds. I kid you not. I have Asian American friends who were never allowed to go to the Puyallup Fair for that reason. It was too traumatic for their parents who were there as kids too, but not for a fair. For an UNFAIR! With the claiming/taking of parts of the earth as one human’s possession, or land ownership, comes class privilege and poverty. They follow hand in hand.


"Private property lives by grace of the law," writes Stirner. It is true that land ownership could not exist if the military and government did not protect the land owners. Or inversely, squatting would be more widespread without military and police action stopping it. When political or legal conditions change, squatting rises dramatically. During the 1974 leftist coup in Portugal, for example, 35,000 houses were squatted! If police laughed when land “owners” tried to claim one piece of land as theirs, imagine it. That would change everything. As I have said, land ownership requires force, and reinforcements. And it is also true that government change has been able to reallocate lands to different peoples over history. But usually only after a revolution, where the people PRIED the land out of the hands of the elite after long deadly struggles, such as in South Africa. The fight over land, whether it is between countries and borderlines, or between the people versus the government as during the agrarian squatter uprisings, reduces to individual land owner versus squatter, ready to take the land, in the microcosm of Adverse Possession. Adverse Possession is the American legal system’s attempt at making squatting a civil process versus a criminal activity. But it falls short of that due to law enforcement at the local level, most often. After all, the land and business owners pay taxes, that fund the government and police, so for all constructive purposes, the elite pay the police and government as a security force to protect their property!

Some have made analogies of our current land situation with a deserted island. Let’s say a bunch of people arrive on an island after a shipwreck. Then one guy finds the area with all the fruit trees, ropes it off and tells the others that part of the island is his and no one else can use it! It is assumed the other island dwellers would laugh and not follow his concept! The analogy goes on further to explore the idea of the guy bringing a piece of paper saying he owned that part of the island. Again, it is assumed the others would only laugh. But then what if he returned with an army to reinforce his ownership? Now things turn. For the worst. He then can entrap islanders to do his labor for his food, or they can starve, or they can be jailed by the army if they try to get the land or food without paying the master…you can see how that is very similar to our current society where you either serve the land owners, or you are homeless, or you are in jail for trying not to be homeless while not serving The Man.

Almost ¾ of the world’s private land is owned by just 2.5% of the landowners. In England, 1% of the population owns 75% of the land. In the US, 3% of population owns 95% of the private land. 80% of Americans own no land, and the top 22% of US land owners own 97% of American land. These are the statistics we are hearing. And as people are pushed off their native lands, they can lose their knowledge of the landscape and native horticulture necessary for survival. Once cut off from the land, they are put into an involuntary welfare state, or made into an easy labor pool for capitalists to exploit, to keep paying the rents land owners demand of the poor. Additionally, many of the natural resources may disappear when fences are put up on land. Many of the Capitalist Elite have no interest in animal rights to lands, unless it is a population they exploit for money, like Salmon. Animals quit using areas they cannot access. The elephant herds were dramatically disrupted by fences and borders in Africa, wherein groups of elephants that used to socialize freely got trapped in areas, and only recently have actions been taken to try to open their paths up so they are not disjointed, but run unblocked, throughout the landscape, so elephants can go where they need to with their chosen clans. The issue of landownership does not just affect people. Animals are very much affected by what people do with land.

Similarly, the Capitalist Elite seem to not care about the land itself. They are willing to mine, dam, deforest, use nonsustainable farming, and contaminate the actual land itself, as a RIGHT OF OWNERSHIP. It seems the right to ABUSE is included in what “ownership” means. Look at ownership situations. When people felt men owned women, it meant women had no rights and could be raped and abused without incident to the man. When people felt children were possessions owned by parents, children were sold, and abuse was allowed by the child’s owner/parent, no police used to step in regarding child abuse, the child was the parent’s sole property. When slaves were considered property, their masters had the “right” to abuse them. Even in lesser situations, employees often feel abused by their company owners, and tenants feel abused by their landlords. It seems the right to abuse is inherent in ownership qualities. And the right to abuse goes well with the need to use force to obtain and keep land ownership. Often it is the desire to abuse natural resources that fuels land wars in the first place, such as America’s obsession with domination in the Middle East for American oil company profiteering.

It is also interesting to note that the government-owned lands in America are predominantly set aside for profiteering capitalists also. They do not set aside huge tracts of government land for low-income housing; but they do hand our forests by the acres over to loggers, and our lands and waters by the miles over to nuclear companies, and our mountains to mining companies. The American government is even willing to displace people with homes on lands near these governmental exploits of land…so the government not only does not let the poor use their own government’s land to live on, but they displace families in the name of business, near government lands, increasing homelessness and poverty. Likewise, most hunger-related deaths are incurred by lack of access to food-producing land. As Francis Moore Lappé of Food First writes, “Hunger exists in the face of plenty; therein lies the outrage.”

Frank Bardacke succinctly puts the land ownership issue into perspective in a paper he authored for a People’s Park protest in Berkeley. It says that a long time ago American Indians lived in the area now referred to as Berkeley. These people had no concept of land ownership, when the Catholic missionaries took the land from them. Then the Mexican government took the land from the Catholic Church. The Mexican government made up some papers they signed saying they owned the land. No American Indians signed it. Then the American army was stronger than the Mexican army, so they took the land, drew up some papers saying they owned it, and forced the Mexicans to sign it. Then the American government sold the land, with their concocted paper land deeds, to “settlers,” while American Indians were still claiming rights to the land. The American army killed the American Indians who made those claims. Then some rich men, who ran the University of California, bought the land, destroyed any houses built on the land, and now that land generates revenue for the rich men as…A PARKING LOT.


Squats often take the form of community centers, as squats are often the result of community action. Also, it is a good idea to offer the neighborhood around the squat some preemptive benefits, to quell their complaints about the squat, if they were to occur. Additionally, present-day squatting alliances, such as “Homes Not Jails in the US, who identify and set up squats for people who are homeless, and the Advisory Service for Squatters/ASS in England, have helped encourage and coordinate recent squats. In Barcelona, Spain, 1996, squatters took over a farm, refusing electricity to protest dams and nukes, and began a self-sufficiency project with organic farming and community workshops. They made their own bread, and sold it to other squatted centers in the area. It is not uncommon to find squats incorporating soup kitchens, libraries, workshops, free stores, zines and publications, work collectives, etc. in their goals and immediate actions. I heard a story about some punks working in Mexico with squatters. The punks had bright hair and wild clothes, and worked as teachers in their school. At first the community was hesitant to trust them, but in time, they grew to be family, and now when the kids from that settlement see a picture of a punk, they point, and say “maestro,” or “teacher.”

Vancouver, B.C. has a rich squatting history. In the 1890’s, a group of Finnish people built 70 stilt homes in a tidal flood area, and about 50 residents still live on the land without legal claim to it. In 1946, 600 WWII vets in poverty took over the Hotel Vancouver, turning it into a hostel for up to 1,200 vets until 1948. A private owner bought the hotel/hostel and tore it down. In 1970, 300 homeless youth took over the Jericho Beach Hostel, and were evicted in a police battle that spread to the town. Twenty five people and six police officers were injured. Also in 1970’s, squatters tore down a fence and occupied a vacant site earmarked for construction eventually, and put up a tent and shack city that lasted about a year. In 1990, The Frances Street squats included several empty houses on one street. The squatters immediately tore down the fences between the yards, and set up a community space offering a free store, potlucks and get togethers. One house was used as a women-only space. A rented house on the block not originally in the squat received an eviction notice, but they refused to leave or pay, and joined the squat themselves. In time, the Vancouver Police demanded the squatters leave. The squatters put up 6-foot high barricades, secured in-door defenses, and set fires in the middle of the streets. Squatters wore masks and helmets, but were evicted violently by 80 riot cops, 30 SWAT members, a bomb squad, earth-moving tractors to demolish the buildings, and more, according to published accounts. The public put more pressure on the federal government to create affordable housing after this event, and it also triggered more squats as well. A group called Direct Action Against Homelessness manifested a “Monster Squat,” on Halloween 1997, in Vancouver, in an abandoned convalescent home. The place had been abandoned for over a year, yet the water still worked and the electricity was still connected (which, oddly, happens more than you would think!). They washed everything from walls to refrigerators, and groups donated food and chores. The space was immediately converted into a soup kitchen, and a community center for art, politics, social gatherings, and a safe space for the homeless. During a one-weekend squat, people were well-fed, slept in warmth, and enjoyed community, in a positive environment. Police kicked in the doors finally, and forced the eviction.

The Page Street Squat in California is an interesting case where squatters, with the help of Homes Not Jails, took possession of the building, and began living in it in Feb 1993. The people who moved in were all very low-income and moved from homeless shelters into the building and shared meals. Since Homes Not Jails had occupied the home continuously for the statute of limitations required to gain title, as well as met the other elements of adverse possession required, such as they paid the 5 yrs taxes, they went to court to quiet title in Dec 1998. Homes Not Jails owned the home for almost 2 more years, until a judge overturned their claim to title in 2000…so now it sits empty again and the homeless are homeless again.


So having addressed why people squat, and where people have squatted, the next step is to explore how people CAN squat themselves. So here is some advice from the experts…

A site out of Amsterdam called Krakengaatdoor suggests the following squatting advice: “The squatting action itself begins with the breaking-open of the door and the placement inside of a table, bed and chair, the symbolic home furnishings which define domestic inviolability. Subsequently, the squatters call the police, who in turn come round to make a report. The police investigate the duration of vacancy, the owner, the plans for the space and other relevant matters. The officer of justice (prosecutor) subsequently determines whether the law has been broken (whether the premises have not been empty for a sufficiently long time) or whether the squatting is approved. If the premises were not empty for twelve months, then the squatters must vacate immediately. If the premises were in fact empty for long enough, then the authorities' concern is over with (for the time being) and the owner has to decide for himself how to deal with the situation. Most spaces that are 'legally' squatted have a 'life expectancy' of several months to perhaps even one or two years. A few percent stay squatted for longer, sometimes more than twenty years. Nowadays, premises are only evicted by the riot police a few times per year, all other squatting actions end peacefully.”

The Squatters’ Handbook out of Sydney, Australia, suggests checking “the overall structure of the place, are the gas and electricity meters still there? You need to know what to bring back to secure the house and fix it up if necessary…During the day on a weekday is actually the best time to check out houses, less conspicuous and you can see more. It can sometimes take quite sometime for owners to realize that anyone is occupying the house, anything from a few hours to a day to a few weeks even. This time should be used for getting the house together, fixing things up, checking the wiring and water etc. It's a good idea to get services such as electricity and gas on as quickly as possible, so you can cook and maintain a life at your new home. First thing to do is change the locks and secure the house. Most barrel locks are easily replaced with a few tools (screwdriver, hacksaw, pliers etc.) and are available from hardware shops. Deadlocks may have to sawn off and replaced totally, these cost more but are more secure. Doors or windows that can't be immediately repaired can have wood or board nailed on them to provide temporary security.”

Homes Not Jails, in America, recommends, “The first thing to do is to make it look more of a home than a squat. Getting some furniture and possessions inside helps a lot. If the police come by and see that you're cooking dinner, reading or watching television they're much more likely to buy an argument that you have permission to be there and are really tenants. If it obviously looks like a squat you're just crashing in for the night, they're likely to ignore their training and procedures and will be happy to haul you off to the station "and let god and a judge sort it out later" (as one officer told squatters). The second thing to do is to get some utilities legally in your name and get some mail sent to your squat…This is relatively easy, since most utility companies don't assume you're squatting and won't ask for any proof of tenancy. You should also have some mail sent to you and arrange for services like telephones and cable TV if you can afford them. Doing all this will give you a fistful of paper to show the police and raise serious doubts in their mind as to whether or not you're actually a trespasser. If you have a place looking like your home and have some mail and utility bills, you're likely to be successful in a face off with the police, even if the owner is there as well…In most cases, though, the first complaint will actually come from a neighbor who's suspicious…”

Another form of direct action with regards to land ownership is the Rent Strike. A zine out of Santa Cruz, Ca. entitled, "Pledge to Boycott Rent & Mortgage," advocates activists begin the organization of a city-wide rent strike. With 1,000 households pledging to boycott rent and mortgage, the first month would amass a budget of approximately $700,000 for legal fees to prevent eviction and to expand the rent strikes. In Barcelona, Spain, in 1931, a group called the Economic Defense Commission demanded rents be reduced by 40%, all security deposits be abolished, and that the unemployed not be forced to pay rent. If the landlord did not comply, the organization threatened 100% of the rent would be withheld! In a population of a million, 45,000 went on the rent strike in after 1 month, and 100,000 were rent striking in 2 months. Police were intimidated from evicting people by angry mobs of militant demonstrators who benefited from the rent strikes. The suppression of this uprising put 350 activists in jail. The Economic Defense Commission was fined heavily and sent underground. The police intensified their violence, and began destroying all property on site during evictions. The landlords bought their own security teams (much like today in Beverly Hills) and the national army was used for evictions by the 3rd month of these rent strikes. As I detailed in Part 1, ripping people off for rents must be maintained by physical force and power.

Kirsten Anderberg is a Seattle based writer and activist. Read more of Kirsten's articles at: www.angelfire.com/la3/kirstenanderberg. She can be reached at:  sheelanagig@juno.com.