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Squatters bill balances penalties for criminals and protections for victims, rightful dwellers | Opinion

Bill 180741 acknowledges that in Philadelphia, there are numerous circumstances where individuals have a legal right to reside in a home, something the existing law fails to do.

Councilwoman Cherelle Parker.
Councilwoman Cherelle Parker.Read moreStaff

Imagine that your widowed mother decides she can no longer maintain her house, so she elects to rent a smaller house in a neighborhood closer to you. She finds a great listing, puts down her first and last month’s rent and security deposit, and moves in. A few months later, someone shows up at her door and tells her that she must get out immediately ... or else. They claim they are the property owner and never agreed to rent the property to her.

This scenario is not uncommon in Philadelphia, especially given the city’s eviction crisis. Under a law adopted by Council in June by an 11-6 vote, your mother will not only have just lost a significant amount of money to a scammer, but she could also be subject to both a $300 compounding daily fine and 90-day daily compounding jail time. Do you really think it’s fair to further penalize someone who has just been defrauded?

That being said, it has been, currently is, and will remain illegal to trespass or break into someone’s home and take up residence. There are no “squatters’ rights.” It is illegal to squat.

As attorneys at Community Legal Services (CLS), one of the city’s premier legal aid organizations, recently wrote: “[W]e agree that Philadelphia needs to address the problem of criminal trespassers. We need a system that is easily accessed by victims, responsive to complaints, and capable of careful and complete review of accusations to determine the merits of accusations of criminal activity. The Criminal and Defiant Trespasser law enacted by City Council in June attempts to address these issues, but in doing so, it subjects many noncriminals to potential fines or jail time.”

My legislation, Bill 180741, provides protections for those who have been falsely accused of being a “criminal and defiant trespasser” as well as protections for victims of residential lease fraud. It acknowledges that in Philadelphia, there are numerous circumstances where individuals have a legal right to reside in a home, something the existing law fails to do. Such circumstances include, but are not limited to: heirs of the deceased owner who may have a “tangled title,” a former owner of a residential property sold at tax sale claiming the right to redeem under Pennsylvania law, tenants with an oral or lost written lease, or an individual who is a buyer of the property under a rent-to-own contract. The legislation also explicitly states that victims of domestic violence, sexual harassment, or stalking living in the same household as their abusers cannot be deemed “criminal and defiant trespassers” to ensure that abusers cannot exploit this legislation to unlawfully evict their victims.

When someone is a victim of residential lease fraud, what happened to them is not fair, but they still must vacate the property. There is language in the proposed bill - language that is not in the current law - that states that police are required to notify the victim in writing that they must make arrangements to leave the premises within 15 days.

Furthermore, the legislation changes the civil penalties for “criminal and defiant trespassing.” The way the law is currently written, the penalties compound daily, meaning that for every four days a squatter is in a house, that’s almost a year in jail. We know that many of these squatting cases take six months or more to resolve, which could mean 45 years in jail. Everyone agrees that these squatters need to face consequences for their actions, but we cannot tout our MacArthur grant wins for justice reform while at the same time enacting laws that could easily put individuals in jail for the rest of their lives. The new bill is not about being soft on crime – it’s about being smart and not “criminalizing” those who are not criminals.

Bill 180741 was the result of collaboration with CLS, SeniorLAW Center, the Public Interest Law Center, and the Tenant Union Representative Network (TURN), organizations which are on the front lines every day, protecting the city’s most vulnerable and elderly. And they are the ones who have been sounding the alarm that the law on the books could further threaten our most vulnerable. The collective hard work of many created a bill that balances protecting rightful home dwellers and victims of fraud, while ensuring that those who trespass or break into someone’s home will still face fines and imprisonment.

Councilwoman Cherelle L. Parker represents the Ninth District.