When you own your home, is it yours — or is it up for grabs? Do private property and home ownership mean anything in Philadelphia?
Even when you have a deed, your home can be occupied by squatters. Until September, ejecting them could be as hard as removing bedbugs.
A couple of things have changed: First, the enactment that month of a bill from Councilman David Oh that expedites the return of the home to the homeowner. Before, the process could take more than a year. Second, a Police Department directive that allows for the prompt arrest of squatters.
Oh targeted criminals commonly called squatters; the technical term is criminal and defiant trespassers. Some are so brazen they break into homes, change the locks, and prevent the owner from entering. Oh estimates it happens hundreds of times each year in the city.
It happened to Gladys Lackey, an elderly widow about whom I wrote in June. She was locked out of her Germantown home by defiant trespassers who trashed it before she was able to evict them.
In Mayfair, George Kiefer complained that his brother Vincent's home was invaded and occupied when Vincent was hospitalized with a serious stroke. He spoke at a news conference Oct. 19 in front of the house, at 3427 Princeton Ave. "In the old days, you could get hung for stealing a horse," Kiefer later told me. "Now you can steal a house — not that I'm saying they should be hung."
After single mom Sheila Simmons bought a house in Germantown several years ago at sheriff's sale for $35,000 for herself and her newborn son, the former owner refused to leave. "You buy the house, then you have to evict the person," Simmons told me. It took her eight months and thousands of dollars in lawyer's fees to get the house. It proved unsafe for her infant, so she sold it at a $7,000 loss just to end the nightmare.
Casting it in personal terms at last month's news conference, Councilman Bobby Henon said trespassers "using your own coffee mug as theirs, and your soap and shower cap as theirs," are "criminals."
Oh's bill passed by a vote of 11-6 on June 21 and became law Sept. 13. Problem solved.
Not so fast — not in Philly.
On the same day Oh's bill became law, Councilwoman Cherelle Parker introduced a bill to amend Oh's bill — which he said would have gutted it. Parker said that her goal was the same as Oh's, but that his definition of criminal trespass was overly broad and might ensnare some people with a claim to the property.
While the two Council members have been sniping at each other, Parker's bill has been changed a number of times, reducing the points Oh found objectionable. It gets a hearing Nov. 19.
As I see it, Oh's bill protects people who have practical problems, while Parker's protects people who have potential problems.
People like Lackey, Kiefer, and Simmons deserve protection. Is that happening?
Yes, thanks to the seven-page Directive 5.31 issued Sept. 28 by the Philadelphia Police Department.
Now, when police get a report of a trespass, the homeowner is asked to sign an affidavit asserting ownership, said Matt White, a sergeant in the Office of the Special Adviser to the Commissioner. A detective investigates, and if "there's probable cause to arrest them, that is what we will be doing," said White. The process could be as fast as a couple of weeks.
That would be amazing. As long as this remains in the law — and Parker says it will — the public is protected. And that's what counts.