New 'squatters' bill could put domestic violence victims at risk of homelessness | Opinion

Philadelphia City Council-01022017-0007
Councilwoman Cherelle Parker’s resolution proposes formation of a task force including the police, the courts, the criminal justice community, and homeowner and tenant advocates.

Recently introduced in Philadelphia City Council was legislation to curb “criminal and defiant trespassers,” also known as “squatters.” While Bill 180430 is well-intended, it will have major negative and unintended consequences, allowing bad actors to displace lawful residents and wrongfully take possession of a property.

The bill will allow unscrupulous landlords – most troubling, those without required rental licenses – to avoid the lawful, established eviction process and remove residents from their homes with only five days’ notice by falsely branding tenants as squatters. Tenants often have oral leases or do not have access to proof that they have a lease, and with this expedited process could quickly find themselves homeless when they are wrongfully accused of being squatters.

The bill also does nothing to protect tenants who have been scammed by fraudsters who rent properties they do not own.  Community Legal Services of Philadelphia lawyers who serve tenants in the city often come across cases where someone will say he or she owns an empty property, “rents” the property to an unsuspecting tenant who thinks the rental is legitimate, and then disappears after receiving the security deposit and several months’ rent.

This bill criminalizes victims of fraud by placing them squarely within the category of “criminal and defiant trespassers.”

Additionally, victims of domestic violence and elder abuse can be harmed by the bill, which will give abusers a way to assert economic control over their victims. Often in situations of domestic violence and elder abuse, the abuser will ensure that his or her name is the sole signature on a deed, another form of control over a victim. The victim may have few, if any, documents linking him or her to the residence – often because the abuser hid or destroyed any other documents that existed.

Under this bill, an abuser could merely allege that the victim is a squatter and take advantage of a fast-track eviction process. An abuser also could use the threat of homelessness as a way to coerce a victim.

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The bill also oversimplifies who is or is not a lawful occupant and does not adequately protect legal and equitable owners. The bill assumes 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. In many cases, these assumptions are incorrect.

People who would be harmed by this bill include heirs stymied by Philadelphia’s tangled title epidemic, victims of forged deeds, homeowners trying to resolve back taxes, and people who find out that an installment sales agreement signed by a previous owner remained valid.

Finally, the bill violates the Pennsylvania Constitution’s provisions for separation of powers by imposing procedures on the courts. As an independent branch of government, only the court system can set its procedures.

While we do not believe that the existing criminal laws need to be changed, we agree that there is a need to review current procedures in order to prevent irreparable harm to homeowners who are victimized by criminal trespassers.

We support a resolution sponsored by Councilwoman Cherelle Parker passed on May 3 that proposes formation of an inter-agency task force, including the police, the courts, the criminal justice community, and homeowner and tenant advocates to propose improvements to the current system.

Bill 180430, on the other hand, would ensnare many Philadelphia citizens who do not fit the very narrow category of “trespassers” targeted by the legislation. Those innocent individuals and families would be classified as criminals and forcibly removed from their homes.

This bill plainly undermines recent efforts by Council to protect tenants at risk of eviction and homeowners at risk of losing their homes due to delinquent property taxes. Council should not support any legislation that would so clearly hurt law-abiding citizens they serve.

Rasheedah Phillips is the managing attorney of the Housing Unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. rphillips@clsphila.org.