City Council on Thursday narrowly passed a controversial bill sponsored by Ninth District Councilwoman Cherelle Parker amending a municipal law that protects homeowners from squatters.
For a fairly technical piece of legislation, the debate was vigorous and, at times, personal between Parker and Councilman At-Large David Oh, who championed the original bill on illegal and defiant trespassers that became law in September.
Parker has said that Oh’s bill casts too wide a net and leaves open the possibility that innocent people could be categorized as squatters. She has maintained that her amendments will not shield trespassers.
Oh has claimed the changes will gut the law, which is aimed at getting victims of squatters in front of a judge sooner. Parker called the allegation “fake news” at Thursday’s meeting.
“Since I introduced this bill… it has been faced with a Facebook-lobbying and Twitter-posting miseducation that has intentionally misrepresented the facts about what this bill does,” said Parker, whose district includes Lawncrest, Burholme and parts of Oxford Circle.
“This bill does not undermine the existing bill on squatters,” she added. “It’s not soft on crime. It very delicately balances protecting rightful home dwellers and victims of fraud while ensuring that those who trespass or break into someone’s home will still face fines and imprisonment.”
The legislation carves out exceptions for people who are victims of residential lease fraud, meaning they are paying rent to a person who they believe owns the property but is not the actual owner.
Those people would not face penalties associated with being a squatter. However, they would still need to vacate the property within 15 days.
It also shields victims of domestic violence, sexual harassment and stalking who live with their abusers from being arrested as trespassers.
Oh said before the vote that squatters could weaponize this provision by claiming they are a victim in order to remain in a home illegally.
Parker said Oh’s claim was “offensive,” and that police are capable of determining the credibility of any accusations.
The bill also changes the penalties for squatters to a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to 90 days for a first offense. A second offense would carry a $2,000 fine and the same possible jail sentence.
The current law includes a per-day penalty of up to $300 and potentially 90 days in jail.
All penalties would be in addition to any sentences imposed under state law, which also forbids squatting.
Oh said Parker’s legislation opens up loopholes for trespassers and will make homeowners wait longer to get their property back.
“This bill will end up causing the homeowner to have to abandon an accelerated court date and go through a process of eight to 14 months,” he said.
Chris Labovitz, zoning chair for the Tacony Civic Association, urged City Council to reject the amendments to Oh’s law. He said he was there to represent all of the civic associations in the Northeast.
“With (this bill), the owner’s rights aren’t a priority,” Labovitz said. “The trespasser is given too much consideration.”
Gladys Lackey, a victim of squatters who recently returned to her home in Germantown, gave emotional testimony at the meeting. The experience was painful and the trespassers destroyed her property, she said.
“I urge Council not to change this law but to help implement (it) so people like myself and other homeowners will not have to go (through) what I have been through,” Lackey said.
Representatives from groups including Community Legal Services, the SeniorLAW Center and the Public Interest Law Center said the legislation is to protect victims of fraud — not to help criminal trespassers.
“There is nothing controversial about making sure people defrauded by scammers and fake leases are not treated like criminals,” said George Donnelly, an attorney at the PILC.
Council members Jannie Blackwell, Darrell Clarke, Kenyatta Johnson, Curtis Jones Jr., Blondell Reynolds Brown, Derek Green, William Greenlee, Helen Gym, Al Taubenberger and Parker voted for the bill. It was opposed by Cindy Bass, Allan Domb, Brian O’Neill, Maria Quinones-Sanchez, Mark Squilla, Bobby Henon and Oh. ••