Squatters take hold over NYC apartments

Amanda Maher
| 6 min. read
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One of our favorite blogs is Humans of New York, a photographer’s account of the people who live, work, and play in New York City. Since the photography project launched in 2010, it has morphed from a catalog of the city’s inhabitants to an evolving documentary where captions share candid interviews of the blog’s subjects.

Recently, there was one post that caught our attention. The picture was of a young man standing outside an apartment building, and in the caption, we learned a bit about his daily life:

“I help maintain properties for absentee landlords. I think most people imagine landlords to be rich guys on Long Island. But most of my clients only own one or two properties. A lot of times they were inherited. Part of my job is helping to get squatters out of the buildings. There are professional squatters out there. You can’t even call them criminals. They know the laws and they’re working within the system. If you catch somebody breaking into your house—that’s ‘breaking and entering.’ But if you happen to live out of state, and somebody breaks into your house and you don’t notice for six months, then that person becomes your tenant. It doesn’t matter if you gave them permission or not. If you want to evict them, you have to go through the legal system, which is very expensive. So it’s usually cheaper to pay the squatters off.”

The young man goes on to describe how he’s been trying to evict one squatter who has been living in an old apartment building for six years without paying a dime. He shares, “We’re offering him $80,000 to leave and he’s asking for more.”

Yikes.

At first, this sounds like a bit of an exaggeration. There’s no way can someone hole up in your apartment for a few months and then call the place their own—right? Wrong.

What Is Adverse Possession?

When a person takes “adverse possession” of a home, the legal term for occupying someone else’s property, they obtain what are known as “squatter’s rights.” In the state of New York, a person has to live on the property openly and without permission of the owner for a period of at least 10 uninterrupted years to be able to claim “adverse possession.” But New York City has its own set of adverse possession laws—and those laws grant a person squatter’s rights after just 30 days! 30 DAYS.

After 30 days, a NYC squatter has the right to continue living there until the actual owner goes through the process of legal eviction. Just as the post in HONY described, the NYC eviction process is lengthy (it can take up to a year!) and expensive. For smaller scale landlords like the one this person works for, it can be easier to just pay the squatter off than to pay hefty legal bills.

Squatter’s Rights Make Eviction Complicated in NYC

Stories about squatters aren’t uncommon in NYC, a city with roughly 3 million apartments. Take the case of Maria Diaz. The 62-year-old bought a two-family investment property in 2006. In February 2013, Diaz stopped renting the Bronx property, and it sat vacant for some time. Facing foreclosure, Diaz went to put the house on the market only to find that a cab driver had been living there for months.

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“It’s absurd that he is allowed to live here,” said Diaz’s daughter. “Who the heck is expecting someone to go into your house and plop their feet down like that?”

Naturally, they tried to kick the squatter out. Diaz’s daughter called the police and reported the stranger for trespassing. Police removed the man, and the family immediately changed the locks. The problem was that the man had already established squatter’s rights, so kicking him out constituted illegal eviction. The squatter went to NYC Housing Court, and the judge allowed him back onto the property just a few days later.

Now, Diaz is forced to go through the long legal battle to properly evict him via court order—a process that will make it almost impossible for Diaz to sell the property. Unable to pay her mortgage and facing foreclosure, Diaz is worried that she might have to file for bankruptcy and sell her restaurant.

Squatters are every landlord’s worst nightmare, especially in a place like New York City, where adverse possession can be established so quickly.

How Can You Protect Yourself From Squatter’s Rights?

Here are a few tips to protect yourself from getting into one of these scenarios:

  • If you do not have (rent-paying) tenants for your property, make sure your apartment is well-secured to prevent anyone from breaking in and making themselves at home.
  • Check on your vacant property intermittently. In a city like New York, where it only takes 30 days to establish adverse possession, visits should occur at least this frequently. If you are an absentee landlord, ask a friend or family member in the area to check on the apartment, or hire a property manager to keep things in order.
  • Know your local property laws regarding squatter’s rights and the eviction process. In NYC, the process begins by serving the squatter with a Notice to Quit, giving him 10 days to vacate the property. If the squatter refuses, then you must file a holdover petition with the court to set the eviction process in motion.
  • Make sure you have adequate homeowners or renters insurance and liability coverage in the event that a squatter nestles in and causes damage.

Prevention is always the best strategy, but sometimes, even the most cautious landlords can’t stop unwelcome visitors from camping out. If you find a squatter on your property, don’t try to evict them on your own! Contact your property manager and/or an attorney, and be sure to follow the local procedures for eviction.

Liked this post? Be sure to read our follow-up piece on squatter’s rights in Washington, which examines how zombie properties in Spokane and nearby cities have led to an onslaught of unwelcome guests.

Read more on Legal Considerations
Amanda Maher

Amanda Maher

Amanda Maher is a self-proclaimed policy wonk who dabbles in real estate law. She holds a B.S. in Political Science and Sociology from Boston University, as well as a master's in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern.

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