Why is it so hard to get rid of squatters in Philadelphia, but so easy to get rid of deadbeat tenants?

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Squatters? Yeah, we’ll get right on that…

Imagine this… you’ve been a landlord for years, and have become quite well versed at evicting tenants who don’t pay their rent.

You purchase a new property. But when you open the door and find people living there. They don’t have a lease, the place reeks of urine, and there is a giant dog who looks like it’s going to bite your face off. You tell everyone to get out, and they laugh at you. Is that a needle on the floor?

What’s going on here? This is your property, they’re trespassers, and this is illegal! So, you call the police, who show up at your property.

“Officer, the people in there are trespassers. They’re not supposed to be here. Here is a copy of my deed, showing that I’m the owner. I do not give them permission to be here. They do not have a lease, and I think one of them is using drugs.”
“I’m sorry sir, I understand, but they claim to have an oral lease with you. One of them showed me an electric bill. While I sympathize with you, I can’t legally eject them. You need to go through the court system.”
“That’s ridiculous!”
“I know, but there is nothing we can do about it.”
“What about L&I?”
“They can’t do anything either.”
“Can’t the District Attorney?!”
“No. You need a court order to get these people out. You need a lawyer.”

So, you call your lawyer…

Now what?

The Difference Between Ejectment and Eviction

An “ejectment” is the process for getting rid squatters. Squatters are people who are trespassing on your property and have never had a lease with you or anyone else. They basically just move into your property.

An “eviction” is for someone who you have a lease with, that the tenant has breached. For example, the tenant failed to pay rent, has too many people on the property, is violating the terms of the lease, etc.

If you have a lease with a tenant, the process for eviction is relatively fast, cheap, and simple. You simply file Complaint in the Philadelphia Municipal Court. The Municipal Court sets a date the second you file, usually about a month out. The hearing lasts for about 20 minutes. The filing fee is $83, and the court arranges service of process for you. On average it takes about 3 months to evict a tenant. If the tenant appeals the Municipal Court’s decision, the case is streamlined and usually heard within a few weeks before a judge.

However, ejectments are handled in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. The Court of Common Pleas is a “trial court” and usually reserved for cases that could involve a jury trial.

It’s a bit more complicated…

The Current Philadelphia Squatter Ejectment Process
Length of Time: Approximately 1 year, or more

Step 1: First, you have to post a notice on the property that states no one is allowed to be in the property, and everyone must vacate within a certain period of time. Otherwise, the squatters can claim they have an oral lease with you, or they’re allowed to be there. Then you have to take a picture of it.

Step 2: The lawyer has to file for a Complaint in Ejectment. This costs about $375, plus the fees you have to pay your lawyer to draft the document. The document is essentially a request to have the Philadelphia Sheriff evict the squatters.

Step 3: You have to pay a process server to physically hand a copy of your Complaint in Ejectment to the Squatters.

Step 4: After you’ve served your Complaint in Ejectment, you have to wait 20 days. If the squatters do not respond, you then have to serve a 10 Day Notice of Default, giving them another  10 days to respond.

[Editor’s Note: If the squatters do respond, well, it becomes an entirely different process that will most likely result in motion practice and possibly a trial.]

Step 5: If the squatters do not respond, you then file a Praecipe for an Entry of Default Judgment. The prothonotary then enters a default judgment.

Step 6: The Court of Common Pleas then holds a Case Management Conference to hold a hearing before a judge. This can take 3 or 4 months, just to schedule, and another 3 to 4 months just to see a judge.

Step 7: Then you have a hearing with a judge, who will want to see all your paperwork. This includes a certified deed (not a copy – a certified copy), affidavit of service from a process server, pictures of your postings, etc. (This is a relatively new procedure, which has added a significant amount of time to the ejectment process.)

Step 8: The court issues an Order granting your request for a Writ of Possession.

Step 9: The lawyer files a Praecipe for a Writ of Possession, which is issued by the prothonotary.

Step 10: The Writ of Possession is taken to the Sheriff of Philadelphia. After a few months, the Sheriff will call you with an eviction date. Once you have the date, you have to hire a locksmith and moving company, with proof of insurance. You’re required to store the squatters’ belongings for a month, at your expense. This can take another 3 to 4 months. Sometimes the Sheriff makes mistakes, doesn’t show up, etc., which will further delay the process.

Bonus: Since you’re the owner of record, L&I will issue violations in your name, even though you can’t get into the property to correct them. Meaning that now only are you carrying the cost of owning the place, but you’re also subject to being fined each day the property is out of compliance. Even if the violations were caused by the squatters.

That folks, is how the process currently works in Philadelphia. If you’ve got a squatter problem, prepare to spend about a year in court.

Doesn’t anyone want to try and fix this problem?

David Oh proposed legislation that would criminalize squatting. His bill proposed that police are to notify squatters to vacate the premises within 48 hours.  The owner of record is presumed to be the actual current owner.  If the occupier can show credible evidence that he or she has authority to be there, then there is an expedited procedure for the court of competent jurisdiction to resolve the dispute within one month of filing the complaint with the court.

Not surprisingly, Helen Gym opposed Oh’s legislation. The bill was shot down in committee 4-1.

Meaning we’re still stuck with the old system.

So what needs to happen?

In my view…

– Ejectments should be handled in the Municipal Court, similar to evictions. Why do squatters have more rights than people who had legitimate leases? I do not know.

– Eliminate hearing requirement, and instead allow the prothonotary to issue a Writ of Ejectment upon default judgment. This new procedure has added almost 6 – 8 months to the process.

– Sheriff’s office needs to be reformed, but I’ve been saying that forever. The sheriff needs to prioritize ejectments.

– If squatters fight the Complaint in Ejectment, the court should put it on an ultra fast track.

But this all seems so unfair!

Yep. I have seen several cases where the landlord simply agrees to pay the squatters money to leave. Typically the agreement states that once the squatters have left, they’ll be given a certain sum of money.

Sadly, paying the squatters is cheaper than paying lawyers, and a much faster way to get the out.

Until City Council gets the stomach to address this problem, purchasing a property with squatters in it continues to be a risky and costly proposition.

In the interim, you can always join HAPCO.

2 Responses to Why is it so hard to get rid of squatters in Philadelphia, but so easy to get rid of deadbeat tenants?

  1. Jordan says:

    If the squatters claim an oral lease, why not concede the lease and file an eviction suit for nonpayment of rent?

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