Agrarian Trust

Adverse Possession: Ownership through Occupation

An obscure law called “adverse possession” allows ownership through occupation, not through purchase or inheritance.

Could what has been used as a legal basis for some residences apply to farmland? This story from California Northern by Chris Smith details the story of one California resident that acquired his home by living in it:

One night a little more than a decade ago, Steve DeCaprio pulled his bike up to an abandoned house in Ghost Town, a poor neighborhood in West Oakland dotted with vacant lots. He cut through the rusty lock on the chain-link fence with bolt cutters, then pried open a plywood sheet that stood where the front door once had. Then he replaced the locks with his own. This is how DeCaprio, a longtime East Bay squatter and veteran of the punk and metal scenes, acquired his home.

He already knew that the previous owner of the house had died in the early 1980s and that no one had come forward to claim it. The turn-of-the-century bungalow had sat empty for many years. The kitchen floor was burned out, and the back of the house hung off the foundation. An acacia tree in the backyard had grown into the roof, leaving the interior open to the elements. The top floor was piled with the carcasses of dead raccoons and other small animals.

DeCaprio and a crew of friends got to work making the place habitable. “At first, it was basically just urban camping,” he remembers. It took eight months of on-and-off work to fix the roof. He got the water flowing, bought storm doors and painted the exterior, planted cacti in the front yard, and yanked out another backyard tree that had begun to menace the house next door. He named it Noodle House, and he currently shares it with three people plus the occasional touring underground band.

DeCaprio, who turns 40 in August, has tousled, graying hair and favors Carharts and black T-shirts bearing band logos. In a more mainstream context, he would be described as a “go-getter.” He plays guitar in a black-metal band named Embers, works as a member representative for the California League of Conservation Voters, and is pursuing a law degree through an independent study program (he expects to take the bar exam next year). And, of course, there’s the house. Right now, DeCaprio is working on a solar array to provide electricity. “There’s gonna be this moment when I turn on a light switch and it’ll be epic,” he says.

Perhaps most impressively, DeCaprio is no longer simply a squatter. He didn’t buy his house, but, after more than a decade of struggle, he owns it. Indeed, he has lived in his house so long that he has gained ownership of it under an obscure law called “adverse possession,” which allows ownership not through purchase or inheritance (the common paths to home ownership), but through occupation—provided no one else can prove he or she is the real owner. Adverse possession, DeCaprio says, is the “holy grail of squatting.”

With the rise of the Occupy movement, squatting has gained new visibility. Since the camps were broken up last fall, the movement has increasingly focused on housing justice—whether it’s helping homeowners fight foreclosure, staging protests against homelessness, or setting up safe havens for occupiers to pursue their activism full-time. Squatting, as a tactic or occasionally as an end in and of itself, is the key component. (As I reported this story, more than one person told me that the word for “occupy” in Spanish—ocupar—also means “to squat.”)

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