Housing The Homeless: Squatting 101

“At the moment I’ve got an abandoned house that I’m squatting at … I don’t know who used to be in it – but there’s a shed, and it’s been broken into and there are three massage tables there. So I’ve put them together, tied them together with rope, and I sleep on top of them,” she laughs, “with my swag and pillow.”

In the last post we met Tracy, the 51-year-old homeless woman living on the street. But like Tracy and many other homeless street-dwellers, what do you do if crisis accommodation is full for the night? Many of them turn to find shelter in abandoned homes, which begs the question: is squatting in Perth even legal?

Tracy tells me it is.

ME: “Wow, okay.” I digest this for a second. “But that’s not actually legal, is it?”
TRACY: “No I’m not breaking any laws,” she assures me. “I’m not breaking any laws,” she repeats. “And technically, years ago, and I think it’s still pretty current now, you’ve got squatters rights. There’s a law for squatter’s rights. It might actually be called something else these days, more of a technical term. But officially we can stay in any house; you can go and sleep in a house as long as you don’t break and enter into the house. So if the back door’s open, if you’re not breaking and entering, and if you’re not doing anything illegal, then you can stay in that house. But if that door has a lock and you break and enter – that’s illegal for you to stay there.”
ME: “And if you know someone’s living there already,” I add.
TRACY: “Yeah, exactly.”

After Tracy surprises me with the statement that squatting is covered by “squatter’s rights”, I decide to do a bit of digging and, to my amazement, I stumble across a somewhat deeply hidden principle called ‘adverse possession’ that perhaps allows a squatter to have some rights under certain circumstances.

The ‘adverse possession’ principle even enables a squatter to go so far as to claim an abandoned property as their own, so long as they have been squatting there exclusively, openly, and without interruption for an extended period of time [1].

So how long is this period of time, you might ask?

It varies around parts of Australia, but according to the Limitation Act of 2005, adverse possession in Perth allows someone to claim abandoned land if they possess it for twelve years without ejectment [2].

An ‘abandoned property’ sitting on abandoned land would be any property that appears to have no current occupant residing there. A house can be assumed to be abandoned if there’s an overstuffed letterbox, dead vegetation, disconnected telephone line, a lack of locks (or fences) to secure the premises, or if there aren’t any goods in the house that suggest an owner or tenant is still living there.

Perhaps a property like this one near the CBD:

Or this one:

I spotted this property near NIB Stadium, which appears to be a derelict building from the 1920s, as well as an unfortunate canvas for vandals. There are many factors that contribute to how a property gets treated with such neglect. It may well be caused by the death of the owner, the transfer of the owner into a nursing home or prison, or if the tenant has escaped still owing rent. In some cases, properties may be in danger of being seized by a squatter if the owner moves or resides overseas and leaves the property unlocked and unsupervised for twelve years [3].

Tracy could then, theoretically, seize the abandoned house she is squatting in and call it ‘home’ one day if she stays there for twelve years under the appropriate legal conditions. Such an endeavour is certainly a risk, and it seems like it should be some kind of breach of privacy or a mysterious flaw in the system, but adverse possession principles remain in existence because it enables land to be marketable, and it prevents the idle use of valuable land that is vacant [4].

It’s true that adverse possession is easier said than done, but it’s not impossible. In fact, Tracy tells me that she knows of about 15 to 20 abandoned houses in the Northbridge area that she believes are all deceased. I’m immediately intrigued.

“They’ve got furniture in there,” she says. “One of them had books, and all the paperwork was in the 1940s. They had antique silver, china there…”
“So does that belong to you, then?” I ask, intensely curious.
“No, no,” Tracy tells me. “So officially I can’t – that’s stealing. That’s stealing,”

I file this information in the back of my mind.

A few days later I decide to go on a rather enthusiastic civilised hunt around Northbridge, trying to track down an abandoned house to respectfully observe on my own. It’s surprisingly difficult. Parts of Northbridge look like they should be abandoned but they’re not. I’m a few hours into my search but I don’t have much luck, so I end up walking all the way to North Perth where I manage to spot a two bedroom one bathroom house up on Charles Street, built in 1925, that appears to be abandoned:

 

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But to my dismay I find that the door has been nailed shut, so a squatter would likely be breaking the law if they tried to get in. Either way, the experience makes me empathise with someone dealing with the frustration of not being able to find a place to stay for the night. It might be at this point where a homeless person would contact crisis accommodation but that’s another story for another time.

References:
[1] Victoria State Government, “Adverse Possession.” Accessed March 28, 2018. https://www.propertyandlandtitles.vic.gov.au/land-titles/adverse-possession

[2] Department of Justice. 2005. “Limitation Act 2005.” Perth: Western Australia State Law Publisher.

[3] Government of Western Australia, “Abandoned Rental Property and Goods.” Accessed March 28, 2018. https://www.commerce.wa.gov.au/consumer-protection/abandoned-rental-property-and-goods

[4] Baker, Matthew et al. “Property Rights by Squatting: Land Ownership Risk and Adverse Possession Statutes.” Land Economics 77.3 (2001): 360–362.

Disclaimer: all images belong to me. Non-confidential parts of the audio and transcript from my interview with Tracy may be emailed upon request, contact: 21713186 (at) student.uwa.edu.au