Homeless take over house, claim ownership under obscure law
ANNE M. PETERSON, Associated Press Writer
Saturday, January 23, 1999
 

(01-23) 12:53 PST SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- For five years, about 12 people lived at one time or another in the white house on Page Street. To some it was a home; others were just passing through.

One thing was true for all the residents: They were homeless and had no legal right to be there.

That's where it gets murky. The white building with pale yellow and orange trim is now at the center of an unusual legal battle over ownership, with the city, the owner's family and the homeless squatters all vying for control.

``It did feel like a home for a while,'' said WhirlwindDreamer, a 37-year-old man who lived in the dining room for more than two years. ``But then we ran into problems.''

The group Homes Not Jails discovered the seemingly abandoned building and started sending people there in 1993. Under adverse possession laws, the group quietly paid off $5,900 in back property taxes. This month, they publicly claimed ownership of the $400,000, two-unit house.

Squatters have used adverse possession laws before to claim property -- notably in 1995 when a group unsuccessfully sued over its right to remain in several residences on East 13th Street in New York City.

The Page Street squat is unusual because of the property tax payment. Mary Ann Gleason, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C., said she had never heard of a group taking over ownership of a home in this way.

``The truth is, we have far too many abandoned buildings across the country and far too many homeless people not to make the connection,'' she said. ``I'm glad they did something about it.''

Today, the house stands vacant. A palm-sized silver padlock binds the gate at the front door. Junk can be seen through poorly curtained windows.

The owner, Alice Jones, died in January 1989, but her heirs in Texas never claimed the San Francisco property because her will's named executor was ill.

In a neighborhood leaning slowly toward better times with new apartment developments and trendy restaurants, the building stood vacant until Homes Not Jails started moving people in.

The residents, including a couple who had a child while living there, added furniture, turned on the utilities and hooked up a phone. Homes Not Jails co-founder Ted Gullicksen said they painted the building and replaced the kitchen cabinets.

``Generally, our goal is to leave a squat in better condition than we found it,'' he said.

Neighbors tell a different story. They say the house was a haven for drug dealers and other miscreants, as well as a pack of stray animals.

``There was always screaming and arguing. I suspect there was a lot of drugs because there were so many people coming and going out day and night,'' said Andy Wojciechowski, who lives across the street. ``You could hear people kicking at the metal gate out in front in the middle of the night.''

Gullicksen admits the squat had problems with residents who weren't willing to follow the three rules his group set down: no drugs, no alcohol and all decisions about the household were to made communally.

When neighbors started complaining, the squat came to the attention of the police and the city attorney's office, which started making attempts to contact Jones' family.

One of the troublemakers was a man named Paul, who allegedly abused drugs and alcohol and set fires in the house. Without the group's permission, Paul brought in another squatter who added to the turmoil: a man claiming to be Victor Willis, the policeman in the late-70s disco group the Village People. Efforts to locate Willis by The Associated Press were unsuccessful.

Homes Not Jails had no legal right to kick the offenders out, basically because they didn't own the building, Gullicksen said.

``It was a difficult situation. We were so close to putting together our claim on the building, and we didn't want anything to ruin it,'' WhirlwindDreamer said. ``But there was nothing we could do. You can't ask someone to leave when you're squatting.''

Meanwhile, the city attorney's office was frustrated by the lack of response from Jones' family in Texas. After about six months of trying unsuccessfully to work with the heirs, the matter was turned over to city Public Administrator Ricardo Hernandez.

As Hernandez was declared the executor and prepared to probate the estate, a sister in Texas came forward to claim the house. Their dispute will now be decided by a judge. A hearing is scheduled for Jan. 26.

``If the family had not become involved, we would have already paid the taxes, paid the bills and sold the house,'' Hernandez said. ``We do that fairly regularly in cases like this.''

The Houston attorney for the family, Ramond Howard, did not return phone calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.

Undaunted by the legal moves, Homes Not Jails paid the property taxes and threw an open house on New Year's Day, mainly to show the neighbors ``that we were the full-fledged owner of the house and all the troublemakers would be gone,'' Gullicksen said.

But the police spoiled the party: They moved in and arrested Gullicksen and seven other Homes Not Jails members for conspiracy to trespass, a felony, and misdemeanor counts of trespassing and malicious mischief. The charges against everyone except Gullicksen were later dropped.

Proudly displaying the receipt from the tax assessor's office, Gullicksen said Homes Not Jails gets its day in court on the adverse possession claim in June.

``We've never had anything come this far,'' he said. ``And we're not going to give up.''