What Are Squatters?

Mary McMahon

Squatters are people who occupy abandoned or disused spaces that do not belong to them. By definition, squatters occupy a space without permission, and their legal status around the world is often contentious. The environments occupied by these people vary, from abandoned warehouses in commercial districts to huge shanty towns on the fringes of major cities in the developing world.

When squatters move into an area they may cause surrounding property values to go down.
When squatters move into an area they may cause surrounding property values to go down.

The practice of squatting is ancient. From the time that people have laid claim to specific plots of land and buildings, people without real estate have occupied such spaces, both legally and illegally. From the point of view of squatters, they are utilizing space in the most efficient way possible, and obtaining housing cheaply. From the point of view of the landlord, these people can be viewed as a threat or menace, especially if they contribute to the deterioration of a property.

Makeshift housing.
Makeshift housing.

In some nations, squatters are protected by law. In fact, if the people can hold a piece of land or a house for a set period of time, they may be able to pursue the deed to the land in court, arguing that they are the de facto owners of the space. This is especially true in cases where people make improvements, or contribute to property maintenance, since their efforts indicate a genuine commitment to the space.

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Many squatters argue that the practice of squatting should be legalized because unoccupied spaces should be used, rather than being allowed to rot. Some residents have radical political values, and they may use squatted spaces to organize other radicals, hold community events, or even to run businesses with a radical bent. Some squats are run as collectives, occupied by numerous people quite successfully for decades. By claiming space, especially in urban areas, some believe that they are benefiting the people around them, as squatters often contribute substantial improvements to the spaces they occupy.

Landlords argue that squatting is accompanied with a host of legal issues. For example, when squatters occupy a condemned or dangerous building, the landlord is considered liable for any injuries, even though the people are there without consent. This group is also perceived as a negative when assessing neighborhood property values, and some people believe their presence increases crime, threatens property rights, and poses a risk to themselves and others. Property damage is another risk, especially when squatters attempt to heat the space through alternative means, or use leaky plumbing.

Squatting often reflects huge socioeconomic disparities, as in the case of slums built right on the borders of wealthy neighborhoods. In regions of the world where land use and tenant rights have been hotly contested, squatting is sometimes used as a form of protest. Landless peasants, for example, may take over and farm unused land, arguing that the government should deed the land to them rather than allowing it to lie fallow.

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Discussion Comments


I ran into squatters living in a mansion that was up for foreclosure in Mesa AZ. Thought I was going to have a heart attack. They were just living the high life for free!

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