In 2014, there were 40,000 vacant houses in Philadelphia, many of them occupied by squatters. Getting a squatter out of a property you own requires you to follow a specific process to document the illegitimacy of the occupation. If you don't own the property in question, you'll likely need to find the owner first.
Identifying the Problem
The first step is to inform both the police and the city's Licenses and Inspections Department that someone is occupying a property without authorization. In some instances, this may lead to the squatters' eviction by the city on grounds of trespass or defiant trespassing.
Complications of Eviction
In other instances of squatting, however, the police can do little.
- If a trespasser claims he was invited onto the property by an owner and the owner can't be located, the police have no clear right to do anything until the property owner can be found and files a complaint.
- The police also can't act if the trespasser claims he has a right to occupy the property under the Pennsylvania statutes of adverse possession, which in some circumstances allow a trespasser to occupy and eventually own the property.
When Squatters Won't Leave
A disturbing reality for many homeowners in neighborhoods afflicted by squatters is that a neighboring homeowner may have no legal standing to begin the eviction process. That usually requires the true owner, which becomes difficult to find when the home is apparently abandoned. In reality, however, most apparently abandoned homes still have an owner. In Philadelphia, most often the legal owner of vacant houses that have been occupied by squatters is the mortgage holder, often a bank. You can find the name of this owner through the city's Department of Records.
Often, once apprised of the squatting situation, the legal owner will begin the eviction process. In Philadelphia, owners of vacant houses have a particular incentive to move toward eviction. Philadelphia has ordinances fining owners responsible for housing that becomes a nuisance.
Once you've identified the owner, you can also file a complaint with Licenses and Inspections by calling 311. Be sure to give the correct house number. If the address isn't visible, locate it using the online City of Philadelphia Zoning Map. Licenses and Inspections doesn't physically evict, but coordinates with the Philadelphia Police Department. It also contacts owners and make them aware of their responsibility to evict squatters.
When You Are the Owner
If you are the owner and need to evict a squatter, you should file a police report of the trespass, and follow up with the formal eviction process, which is the same for squatters as it is for delinquent or undesirable tenants. You begin by serving the squatter a formal notice of eviction, then following up by filing an eviction complaint with Philadelphia's Landlord-Tenant Court. There are formal requirements and timetables for these events.
If a squatter is a savvy trespasser he may try to oppose the eviction on the basis of allegedly improper or untimely filings, so you may want to get help from an experienced real estate attorney familiar with Philadelphia's requirements.
The Overblown Adverse Possession Problem
Although you may read alarmist cautions about Philadelphia squatters taking over property and eventually possessing it, the reality is that although a squatter may meet some requirements for adverse possession, it is unlikely that a squatter will manage to live continuously for 21 years in an abandoned house without either the owner or the city opposing the occupation, a prerequisite for adverse possession in Pennsylvania. Until 21 years have passed, he has no more right to occupy the property than any other trespasser.