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Fake It Until You Take It

Adverse possession is the centuries-old legal principal that says, basically, if a squatter occupies a piece of land long enough, he owns it. This week, a Howard Beach man named Peter Zephyrin has been telling local news outlets that he’s using adverse possession to take ownership of a boarded-up apartment complex in Queens and that he’s charging tenants $250 a week to take up residence there. Zephyrin says he has been arrested three times for trespassing on the property, according to the local Fox television affiliate.

His tenants appear to enjoy greater rights. Earlier this month, a housing court ordered the property management company responsible for the complex to replace a door it had removed from one of the occupied buildings.

So what we have is a legal tangle wrapped in a fallacy wrapped in a tragedy. The tragic part is that New York’s housing market is so tight residents will pay $250 a week for an apartment without gas, a refrigerator, or a working stove. The tangle is that unlike Zephryin, his tenants appear to be protected from immediate eviction, perhaps by virtue of paying rent.
And now, the fallacy.

The apartments are in foreclosure, according to court records, and have been vacant for years, according to Fox. Zephyrin, who has been arrested for squatting before, took up residence and, according to the New York Post, installed electricity and water heaters and started charging rent.
Imagine you woke up one day and found out the U.S. government gave you license to use your brain and do something unorthodox, Zephyrin told the Post. I’m taking what the lazy wealthy person left behind.

In New York State, where it takes 10 years to win adverse possession, the notable cases have involved things like shuffleboard courts and chicken coops. The famous squatters in Manhattan’s East Village won ownership of their building through negotiations with the city, which owned the buildings, not by adverse possession.

Yet interest in adverse possession and squatters’ rights remains strong, in some quarters. It picked up after the foreclosure crisis emptied houses, lending the idea of the little guy claiming a piece of land a kind of frontier romance.