Debate over new squatting law

Councilwoman Cherelle Parker is pushing for changes to bill aimed at helping homeowners remove illegal and defiant trespassers.

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Changes could be coming to a recently enacted law aimed at helping homeowners who fall victim to squatters.

A bill amending the law made it out of committee last week, but not before some tense exchanges between Councilman At-Large David Oh, who championed the original law, and Ninth District Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, who is pushing for the changes.

Oh’s bill, which went into effect in September, is intended to speed up the process by which property owners can remove squatters from their homes. A procedure that previously took months can now take days or weeks thanks to the ordinance, according to Oh.

Parker said her legislation “protects rightful home dwellers and victims of fraud.” Oh said it would gut the protections his bill, which passed City Council with an 11-6 vote.

“All of this is really to make it more difficult for the homeowner who’s already challenged in Philadelphia,” Oh said during the Nov. 20 Public Safety Committee hearing.

Parker accused Oh of spreading “misinformation” about her bill and said she is not looking to shield squatters, also known as illegal and defiant trespassers.

“There are no squatters’ rights,” said Parker, whose district includes Lawncrest, Burholme and parts of Oxford Circle in addition to portions of North and Northwest Philadelphia. “It is illegal to squat.”

She said the existing law does not account for people who may have inherited property from deceased family members without legal wills and victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse or stalking who live with their abusers.

Parker’s legislation is also aimed at protecting tenants who are paying rent to someone who illegally seized the property. The tenants would still have to leave the property but would have a 15-day window to do so, according to the bill.

In addition, the proposed changes would lower the penalties for squatters to a fine of up to $1,000 for first-time offenses and $2,000 for repeat offenders. Oh’s law calls for a $300 fine and up to 90 days in jail for each day the trespasser remains on the property.

Francis Healey, a special adviser to Police Commissioner Richard Ross, said during the hearing that the police department supports Parker’s legislation.

Healey said officers have recently been given a new directive on how to deal with incidents of squatting. Although the change came after Council passed Oh’s bill, the directive is based on state law and was not in response to city code, he said.

Representatives from the District Attorney’s Office also testified in support of the legislation.

Parker’s bill will now head to the full Council for consideration. It is co-sponsored by Councilmembers Helen Gym, Al Taubenberger, Bill Greenlee, Blondell Reynolds Brown, Curtis Jones Jr. and Council President Darrell Clarke. ••