Squatting in the United States

Historically, squatting occurred in the United States during the California Gold Rush and when colonial European settlers established land rights. There was squatting during the Great Depression in Hoovervilles and also during World War II. Shanty towns returned to the US after the Great Recession (2007–2009) and in the 2010s, there were increasing numbers of people occupying foreclosed homes using fraudulent documents. In some cases, a squatter may be able to obtain ownership of property through adverse possession.

Various community groups have used squatting as a tactic both to call for improved housing and to house the homeless. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) made a national campaign in 1979. Operation Homestead (OH) occupied 300 units in Seattle in the early 1990s. In New York City, squatters occupied 32 buildings, some of which the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB) then helped to legalize.


Settling the Midwest[edit]

Northwest Territory 1787

Settlers without legal claims, derisively called "squatters", had been moving into the Midwest for years before 1776. They pushed further and further down the Ohio River during the 1760s and 1770s and sometimes engaged in conflict and competition with the Native Americans. British officials were outraged--they wanted the West to be reserved for Indians but could do little to stop the Americans.[1] The British had a long-standing goal of establishing a Native American buffer state in the American Midwest to resist American westward expansion.[2]

With victory in the American Revolution the new government considered evicting the squatters from areas that were now federally owned public lands.[3] In 1785, soldiers under General Josiah Harmar were sent into the Ohio country to destroy the crops and burn down the homes of any squatters they found living there. But overall the federal policy was to move Indians to western lands (such as the Indian Territory in modern Oklahoma) and have a very large numbers of farmers replace a small number of hunters. Congress repeatedly debated how to legalize settlements. On the one hand Whigs like Henry Clay wanted the government to get maximum revenue, and also wanted stable middle-class law-abiding settlements of the sort that supported towns (and bankers). Jacksonian Democrats like Thomas Hart Benton wanted the support of poor farmers, who reproduced rapidly, had little cash, and were eager to acquire cheap land in the West. Democrats did not want a big government and keeping revenues low helped that cause. Democrats avoided words like "squatter" and regarded "actual settlers" as those who gained title to land, settled on it, and then improved upon it by building a house, clearing the ground, and planting crops. A number of means facilitated the legal settlement of the territories in the Midwest: land speculation, federal public land auctions, bounty land grants in lieu of pay to military veterans, and, later, preemption rights for squatters. Ultimately, as they shed the image of being outside the law and fashioned themselves into pioneers, squatters were increasingly able to purchase the lands on which they had settled for the minimum price thanks to various preemption acts and laws passed throughout the 1810s-1840s. In Washington, Jacksonian Democrats favored squatter rights and banker-oriented Whigs were opposed; the Democrats prevailed.[4][5][6][7]

Homestead laws after 1862[edit]

The Homestead Acts legally recognized the concept of the homestead principle and distinguished it from squatting, since the law gave homesteaders a legal way to occupy "unclaimed" lands. The Homestead Act of 1862 was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862, and was enacted to foster the reallocation of "unsettled" land in the West. The law applied to US citizens as well as immigrants. It required a five-year commitment, during which time the land owner had to build a twelve-by-fourteen foot dwelling, and develop or work the 160-acre (0.65 km2) plot of land allocated. After five years of positively contributing to the homestead, the applicant could file a request for the deed to the property, which entailed sending paperwork to the General Land Office in Washington, D.C., and, from there, "valid claims were granted patent free and clear".[8]


During and after the California Gold Rush (1848–1855) new arrivals squatted land. Under the California Land Act of 1851, squatters made 813 claims as the population in California increased from 15,000 in 1848 to 265,000 in 1852.[9] The Squatters' riot of 1850 was a conflict between squatters and the government of Sacramento, California.[10] Squatting occurred during World War II when Japanese-Americans were sent to Manzanar concentration camp. Buildings which had been left abandoned around the Little Tokyo area in Los Angeles were occupied by African American migrant workers moving to California to work in the armaments factories.[11] In the 1970s and 1980s, gold mining again became an issue in places such as Idaho.[12] In 1975, over 2,000 illegal operations were reported in California and the Forest Service took action on what it called "occupancy trespass".[13]

Great Depression of 1930s[edit]

refer to caption
Huts in Manhattan, 1935

Hoovervilles were shanty towns built by homeless people across the US during the Great Depression in the 1930s. They were named after Republican Herbert Hoover.[14]

Great Recession (2007–2009)[edit]

During the Great Recession (2007–2009) shanty towns again appeared across the US, for example Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon, Umoja Village in Miami and Nickelsville in Seattle.[15][16][17] After the United States housing bubble collapsed and banks have foreclosed on many homeowners unable to pay their mortgages.[18] Sovereign citizens in Georgia have squatted million dollar homes in Dekalb and Rockdale counties using fake deeds.[19] According to a Florida based lawyer, "we haven't seen this kind of level of squatters since the Great Depression".[20] In the San Francisco Bay Area, local NBC News reported that people were even squatting on their own foreclosed properties.[21] Michael Feroli (chief economist at JPMorgan Chase) has commented on the boon to the economy of "squatter rent" or the extra income made available for spending by people not fulfilling their mortgage repayments.[22]

Housing justice[edit]


Community organizations have helped the homeless to take over vacant buildings not only as a place to live but also a part of larger campaign to shine a light on inequity in housing and advocate change in housing and land issues. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (or ACORN) was one of the first organizations in the US to launch a national squatting campaign to challenge and transform federal and local housing policies to provide for more affordable housing. In 1979, ACORN launched a squatting campaign to protest the mismanagement of the Urban Homesteading Program. This housed 200 people in 13 cities between 1979 and 1982. In June 1982, ACORN constructed a tent city in Washington, D.C., and organized a congressional meeting to call attention to the plight of the homeless. In 1983, as a result of their demonstrations, many of the suggestions of ACORN were incorporated into the Housing and Urban-Rural Recovery Act of 1983. This brought in a period of local urban homesteading where tax delinquent properties on the city level were included in the program.[23]

In 1981, ACORN and the Inner-City Organizing Network moved hundreds of people into vacant buildings in Philadelphia. The actions created such an upheaval that the Federal government got involved, offering housing to the squatters in the 67 federally owned buildings if they agreed to leave.[24] Between June 15 and August 2, 1985, ACORN supported homeless people to take over 25 city-owned buildings in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn.[25] During the incident, 11 people were arrested. The City responded by granting the former squatters 58 city owned buildings, money for technical and architectural aid, and $2.7 million in rehabilitation loans.[26] In order to preserve democratic decision making and affordability to the buildings the squatters organized themselves into collective members of a Mutual Housing Association. In a mutual housing association, neighborhood residents form a collective, contributing some money and a lot of sweat equity to rehabilitate buildings for their own use in return for public support and limited ownership. The collective – in this case the Mutual Housing Association of New York – retains title to the land. If owners choose to sell, the association has the right to repurchase for a price reflecting only individual investment, not the market.[26]

Other groups[edit]

In 1988, Operation Homestead (OH) in Seattle began occupying buildings and negotiating their sale to nonprofit low-income housing organizations. By 1993, it had successfully reclaimed 300 units.[27] In May 1991, OH occupied Arion Court, a vacant apartment building, to draw attention to vacant housing the city was letting deteriorate despite a large need for affordable housing.[28] As a direct result of the protest, the building was renovated and turned into 37 low-income housing units.[29] Arion Court became the first self-managed permanent housing project for previously homeless people in Washington State. Residents decide the rules and how to enforce them.[30] In 1992 OH occupied the Pacific Hotel, prompting the house to be turned over to a nonprofit for low-income housing. It functioned as an emergency shelter until it was renovated and converted into 113 affordable housing units.[31] OH also did occupations of the McKay Apartments and the Gatewood Hotel.[32] Another community organization is Take Back the Land, a Miami-based, self-proclaimed "housing liberation" group that formed in 2006. They break into vacant, unused bank-owned foreclosed homes and move homeless people inside.[33] Take Back the Land organized a shantytown called the Umoja Village to squat a vacant lot in 2006 and 2007.[34] Homes Not Jails in San Francisco advocates squatting houses to end the problem of homelessness. It has opened "about 500 houses, 95% of which have lasted six months or less. In a few cases, squats have lasted for two, three or even six years."[27] Other groups working for housing justice include Picture the Homeless (New York City), MORE (Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment – St. Louis), Right 2 Survive (Portland, Oregon), Organizing for Occupation (New York City), PUSH (People United for Sustainable Housing – Buffalo, New York), ONE DC (Washington DC), LIFFT (Low Income Families Fighting Together – Miami).[23] In Minnesota, a group known as the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign has relocated families into thirteen empty properties, and one national organizer likened the advocacy and service work of her group to "a modern-day underground railroad".[33]

New York City[edit]

Sign at C-Squat.

In New York City, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB) was at the forefront of a homesteading movement in the 1970s and 1980s.[35] Despite squatting being illegal, artists began to occupy buildings, and European squatters coming to New York brought ideas for cooperative living, such as bars, support between squats, and tool exchange.[36] In the 1990s, there were between 500 and 1,000 squatters occupying 32 buildings on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The buildings had been abandoned as a result of speculation by owners or police raids as part of a crackdown on drug use.[37] As the area became gentrified, the squats were evicted, Dos Blockos being one. Three buildings on 13th Street were evicted without notification following a prolonged legal battle in which the squatters argued through their lawyer Stanley Cohen that they were entitled to ownership of the buildings through adverse possession since they had lived there since 1983.[38] In 1995, a preliminary injunction was granted against the eviction plans, but this was overturned by state appellate.[39]

More recently, in 2002 the UHAB liaised with the city to legitimize the efforts of squatters in 11 buildings in the Lower East Side.[35] In this project, UHAB bought the buildings for $1 each and agreed to assist the squatters to undertake essential renovation work to bring the buildings up to code, after which their apartments could be bought for $250 each. UHAB would also train them in running low-income limited-equity housing cooperatives.[37][35] After prices peaked from the housing boom, several of the squatters told the press that they wanted out of the contract so they could be allowed to sell their units at market rate prices. No such arrangements were made, but some squatters attempted to challenge the contract, arguing that adverse possession protected their ownership claim.[40] The first project to successfully renovate was Umbrella House.[40] Others are Bullet Space, which hosts an art gallery, and self-managed social center ABC No Rio, which was founded in 1980.[35][41][42] In 2012, the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space opened at a fourth project, C-Squat.[43]

Homeless people squatting in underground spaces in New York City such as Freedom Tunnel have come to be known as Mole People which was the subject of a documentary film Dark Days.[44]


refer to caption
The number of years required for adverse possession in different states

In the United States, squatting is illegal and squatters can be evicted for trespassing.[36] Real estate managers recommend that vacant properties be protected by erecting "no trespassing" signs, regular checks, tenant screening, and quickly finding new tenants.[45] In Miami, municipal ordinance requires that property owner exercise all legal means to remove squatters and police are empowered to take actions to remove squatters from private property and then bill the owner or lessee.[46]

In common law, through the legally recognized concept of adverse possession, a squatter can become a bona fide owner of property without compensation to the former owner. Implementation and specific requirements vary across locality.[47] The typical requirements are that the occupation must be actual, continuous, exclusive, hostile and public.[48] The most difficult part of claiming adverse possession for squatters is normally the requirement of continuous possession.[49]

The Pueblo Chieftain, a local newspaper in Colorado, suggested that indicators of squatting might include people carrying in jugs of water or living by candlelight. A captain with the Pueblo Fire Department said squats present difficulties for fire fighting.[50] In Colorado, in order for police to act, the homeowner is expected to be willing to press charges and report to the police within a reasonable time frame. In 2018, district representatives sought to amend the law so that the police could immediately remove squatters.[51] The Bulletin, a local newspaper in Bend, Oregon, reported that second homes and vacation rentals can become a target of squatters.[52]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ White, Richard (1991). The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815. pp. 340.
  2. ^ Dwight L. Smith, "A North American Neutral Indian Zone: Persistence of a British Idea" Northwest Ohio Quarterly 1989 61(2-4)|page=46-63
  3. ^ Alan Brown, "The Role of the Army in Western Settlement Josiah Harmar's Command, 1785-1790" Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 93#2 pp. 161-172. online
  4. ^ Richard White, "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A New History of the American West (U. of Oklahoma Press, 1991) pp. 137-143.
  5. ^ On federal policy see Benjamin Horace Hibbard, A history of the public land policies (1924), online.
  6. ^ On the settlers and squatters, see Everett Dick, The Lure of the Land: A Social History of the Public Lands from the Articles of Confederation to the New Deal (U of Nebraska Press, 1970) pp 9-69.online
  7. ^ Matthew Hill, " 'They are not surpassed … by an equal number of citizens of any equal country in the world': squatter society in the American West," American Nineteenth Century History, (2023) DOI: 10.1080/14664658.2022.2167296
  8. ^ Potter, Lee Ann; Schamel, Wynell (1997). "The Homestead Act of 1862". Social Education. 61 (6): 359–364. Archived from the original on July 14, 2011. Retrieved September 15, 2017.
  9. ^ Clay, Karen. "Anarchy, Property Rights, and Violence: The Case of Post Gold Rush California". Archived from the original on November 10, 2020. Retrieved November 10, 2020.
  10. ^ "Sacramento History Online". www.sacramentohistory.org. Archived from the original on November 10, 2020. Retrieved November 10, 2020.
  11. ^ Nakagawa, Martha. "Little Tokyo / Bronzeville, Los Angeles". Archived July 29, 2020, at the Wayback Machine. Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved July 29, 2020.
  12. ^ Jackson, Donald (January 9, 1970). "Whose Wilderness?". LIFE Magazine. 69 (1): 110. Archived from the original on January 26, 2020. Retrieved December 15, 2018 – via books.google.com. Original article cannot be found elsewhere online, scanned copy available on books.google.com however.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  13. ^ Taylor, Ronald B. (June 27, 1988). "Mining—a Golden Opportunity for Squatters?". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Archived from the original on December 11, 2015. Retrieved December 6, 2018.
  14. ^ "Hoovervilles and Homelessness". University of Washington. Archived from the original on November 5, 2020. Retrieved November 10, 2020.
  15. ^ "Portland tent city declared legal". CNN. AP. February 27, 2004. Archived from the original on December 23, 2006. Retrieved November 10, 2020.
  16. ^ Romero, Roberta (September 26, 2008), City moves to evict homeless campers, King 5 TV, archived from the original on September 27, 2008, retrieved September 26, 2008
  17. ^ Rameau, Max (2008). Take back the land: Land, gentrification and the Umoja Village shantytown. Miami, FL: Nia Interactive Press. ISBN 978-1-4348-4556-6.
  18. ^ "Have Borrowers Recovered from Foreclosures during the Great Recession? – Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago". www.chicagofed.org. Archived from the original on November 15, 2020. Retrieved November 10, 2020.
  19. ^ Netter, Sarah (August 20, 2010). "Anti-Government Sovereign Citizens Taking Foreclosed Homes Using Phony Deeds, Authorities Say". ABC News. Archived from the original on June 12, 2019. Retrieved November 10, 2020.
  20. ^ Bernstein, Maxine (April 23, 2011). "A homeowner startled to find squatter living in the Portland house he bought out of foreclosure". The Oregonian. Archived from the original on November 17, 2018. Retrieved November 10, 2020.
  21. ^ Roberts, Chris (May 20, 2011). "After Foreclosure, Woman Breaks Back into, Squats". NBC Bay Area. Archived from the original on November 10, 2020. Retrieved November 10, 2020.
  22. ^ Willis, Bob (April 22, 2011). "'Squatter Rent' May Boost Spending as Mortgage Holders Bail". Bloomberg.com. Archived from the original on July 29, 2014. Retrieved March 11, 2017.
  23. ^ a b Dobbz, Hannah (2012). Nine-Tenths of the Law: Property and Resistance in the United States. AK Press.
  24. ^ "US Acts in Philadelphia Squatters Case". The New York Times. July 13, 1981. Archived from the original on January 25, 2018. Retrieved February 13, 2017.
  25. ^ "Squatters and City Battle for Abandoned Buildings". The New York Times. August 2, 1985. Archived from the original on November 21, 2017. Retrieved February 13, 2017.
  26. ^ a b "New York Turns Squatters into Homeowners". The New York Times. October 12, 1987. Archived from the original on January 7, 2018. Retrieved January 5, 2013.
  27. ^ a b Corr, Anders (1999). No trespassing!: Squatting, rent strikes, and land struggles worldwide (First ed.). Boston, Massachusetts: South End Press. pp. 17–18, 22–24. ISBN 0896085953.
  28. ^ "Activists Occupy Vacant Building". The Seattle Times. May 20, 1991. Archived from the original on March 3, 2016. Retrieved January 1, 2013.
  29. ^ "Arion To Become Low-Income Housing". The Seattle Times. June 6, 1991. Archived from the original on March 3, 2016. Retrieved January 1, 2013.
  30. ^ "Arion Court Reopens to Homeless". The Seattle Times. December 13, 1994. Archived from the original on March 3, 2016. Retrieved January 1, 2013.
  31. ^ "Pacific Hotel To Be Renovated Into Low-Income Housing". The Seattle Times. October 27, 1994. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved January 1, 2013.
  32. ^ "Buildings 'Need to be Opened Up'Buildings 'Need To Be Opened Up' – Injured Housing Activist Labors For The Low-Income". The Seattle Times. June 12, 1991. Archived from the original on March 3, 2016. Retrieved January 1, 2013.
  33. ^ a b Leland, John (April 9, 2009), "With Advocates' Help, Squatters Call Foreclosures Home", New York Times, archived from the original on June 5, 2016, retrieved February 13, 2017
  34. ^ Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez (December 19, 2008), Take Back the Land: Miami Grassroots Group Moves Struggling Families into Vacant Homes, Democracy Now!, archived from the original on March 27, 2009, retrieved April 2, 2009
  35. ^ a b c d Ferguson, Sarah (August 27, 2002). "Better Homes and Squatters: New York's Outlaw Homesteaders Earn the Right to Stay". The Village Voice. Archived from the original on January 7, 2018. Retrieved January 7, 2018.
  36. ^ a b Pruijt, Hans (2003). "Is the institutionalization of urban movements inevitable? A comparison of the opportunities for sustained squatting in New York City and Amsterdam". International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 27 (1): 133–157. doi:10.1111/1468-2427.00436. hdl:1765/19213.
  37. ^ a b Neuwirth, Robert (September 1, 2002). "Squatters' Rites". CityLimits.org. Archived from the original on November 10, 2020. Retrieved January 7, 2018.
  38. ^ Lueck T Police Evict Squatters From Three City-Owned Tenements in the East Village in The New York Times August 14, 1996 Available online Archived November 10, 2020, at the Wayback Machine
  39. ^ Ciezadlo A Squatters' Rites: Taking Liberties – A Brief History of New York City's Squats in City Limits Magazine Available online Archived September 28, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  40. ^ a b Anderson, Lincoln (December 31, 2008), "Former Squats Worth Lots, But Residents Can't Cash In", The Villager, archived from the original on January 24, 2009, retrieved May 24, 2011
  41. ^ Russeth, Andrew (October 8, 2019). "In New York, Art-Filled Private Spaces Open to the Public for a Limited Time: Picks from Open House New York 2019". ART News. Archived from the original on November 15, 2020. Retrieved November 15, 2020.
  42. ^ Trimarco, James (February 6, 2008). "ABC No Rio". The Brooklyn Rail. Archived from the original on November 15, 2020. Retrieved November 15, 2020.
  43. ^ Gupta, Arun (2013). "A Brief History of Squatting: Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space – Politics – Utne Reader". Utne Reader. Archived from the original on November 15, 2020. Retrieved November 15, 2020.
  44. ^ Robey, Tim (January 23, 2014). "Dark Days, review". The Telegraph. Archived from the original on June 13, 2017. Retrieved June 13, 2017.
  45. ^ Nicely, Tyler (February 4, 2020). "How to Remove Squatters". Rentals Resource Center. Archived from the original on November 10, 2020. Retrieved October 2, 2020.
  46. ^ City of Miami Legislation Ordinancehttp://egov.ci.miami.fl.us/Legistarweb/Attachments/76560.pdf Archived October 9, 2020, at the Wayback Machine
  47. ^ Baker, Matthew; Miceli, Thomas; Sirmans, C. F.; Turnbull, Geoffrey K. (August 2001). "Property Rights by Squatting: Land Ownership Risk and Adverse Possession Statutes". Land Economics. 77 (3): 360–370. doi:10.2307/3147130. JSTOR 3147130. S2CID 153757997.
  48. ^ Johnson, Ruth Lee (May 7, 2018). "The Shocking Law of Adverse Possession". Psychology Today. Archived from the original on November 10, 2020. Retrieved November 10, 2020.
  49. ^ Wiengand, Erin (2004). "Trespass at Will: Squatting as Direct Action, Human Right and Justified Theft". LiP Magazine.
  50. ^ Harmon, Tracy (October 16, 2020). "Residents are asked to report squatters". Pueblo Chieftain. Archived from the original on October 26, 2020. Retrieved October 22, 2020.
  51. ^ Ross, Eric (January 9, 2018). "Lawmakers respond after police say they can't remove squatters who push homeowners out of their houses". KOAA – Colorado. Archived from the original on October 26, 2020. Retrieved October 22, 2020.
  52. ^ Garrett, Andrews (April 28, 2020). "Second homes, vacation rentals are targets for squatters". The Bulletin. Archived from the original on May 4, 2020. Retrieved October 2, 2020.

Further reading[edit]

  • Dick, Everett Dick, The Lure of the Land: A Social History of the Public Lands from the Articles of Confederation to the New Deal (U of Nebraska Press, 1970) online
  • Hibbard, Benjamin Horace. A history of the public land policies (1924), online.
  • Lyle, E. (2008) On the Lower Frequencies Soft Skull Press ISBN 978-1-933368-98-6.

External links[edit]