Is Adverse Possession?
Adverse possession has been
characterized in the media as an "obscure law" but it has actually a fundamental
tenet of property law and has been part of American law since the 1600s
and part of European law since the 1400s.
California (and every state) has an adverse
possession law (delineated in the California Code of Civil Procedure).
Details may vary from state to state but the law is fundamentally the same
everywhere and is relatively unchanged from its first inception in Europe
almost 600 years ago. In California, adverse possession requires five years
of continued use which is "open and notorious" and "adverse" to the owner's
interest. The maintenance and upkeep and improvement of the property is
required and for the five years of use the property taxes must be paid
for the property being adversely possessed. Homes Not Jails has met the
requirements having squatted Page Street openly since February of 1993
to early 1999 and having painted the property, remodeled interiors and
generally maintaining it.
The concept of adverse possession was born
from the belief that society's best interests were met when property and
land were utilized productively rather than sitting fallow. This interest
was especially noted 600 years ago in relation to food production. During
this agrarian time, people were starving and lacked the land to produce
the food for themselves or others. At the same time, many landowners had
farmland sitting unused. Society's interests were served by letting the
people who had no food grow food to eat on the land sitting unused and
unproductive. Adverse possession was thus created to utilize unused land
so people could be fed.
That, of course, is very analogous to San
Francisco where many people have no housing while housing sits empty and
Page Street is a perfect example of unproductive land being made productive
in a way that benefits society.
Adverse possession was fundamental to the
expansion of the United States in the 1800s and to the establishment of
California as part of the United States. Homesteading laws and programs
which produced the migration and settling of the west are based on the
same concepts as is adverse possession, in that homesteaders had to agree
to live on and improve and utilize productively tracts of land for (typically)
five years in order to acquire ownership. Homesteading and adverse possession
laws, though, were also perversely used as the legal justification for
the seizure of property from native Californians and Americans.
Urban squatters have often utilized adverse
possession to acquire abandoned buildings, mostly in rundown neighborhoods
in East Coast cities. The acquisition of Page Street via adverse possession
would be a first in San Francisco and possibly its first use in an urban
setting in California.