A student from the Andy and Gwen Stern Community Lawyering Clinic won a victory on behalf of a client when a judge granted his motion and allowed a man who had occupied an abandoned house in the city’s Mill Creek neighborhood to acquire the deed to the property.
The man began occupying the home 25 years ago, when the vacant house was used by drug dealers, said 3L Justin Hollinger, a student in the clinic.
His presence put an end to drug activity in the house, enabling him to make repairs and improvements to the property and the neighborhood beyond.
“He became an indispensable part of the community,” Hollinger said.
The legal challenge that Hollinger faced was to document the laborious efforts that he and his client had made to serve the individual who held the deed to the property with a lawsuit. There were some 50 to 60 pages of public-record searches, certified mail receipts and other documents that proved efforts to reach the deed holder, who never replied or made any effort to return to the property.
The court granted Hollinger’s motion, triggering a process whereby the sheriff affixed a notice onto the house about legal action taken against the deed holder, which received no response. Thirty days later, the court granted a default judgment, giving Hollinger’s client full legal ownership of his longtime home.
Once homeless, the man transformed his own life as much as the home he occupied, Hollinger explained. Now the block captain of his neighborhood, Hollinger’s client organizes block parties and arranges the local Fire Department to conduct programs for children who live on his street, Hollinger said, adding that local senior citizens view him as a son.
The neighbors played a role in the case, Hollinger explained, since the affadavits they provided to a previous clinic student, Alexandra Harris, ’18, helped establish the client’s credentials as a longtime occupant of the house who transformed the one-time eyesore.
The case centered around legal doctrine that applies to adverse possession of property.
“People throw around the term ‘squatters’ rights,’” Hollinger said. “It’s used pejoratively, but it’s rooted in the idea that we need to have productive use of land. We don’t want people to sit on land they’re not using while it goes to waste.”
That it took 25 years for Hollinger’s client to become eligible for ownership is a relic of a law that has now changed, thanks to the advocacy of Community Legal Services and other organizations, Hollinger explained.
In June 2018, the governor signed a law that reduces the period of time required for adverse possession from 21 years to 10.
As a legal homeowner, Hollinger’s client is now eligible for a host of city programs that can help him gain tax relief and assistance with weatherization. Among his top priorities is to install a furnace to replace the baseboard heaters he’d been using. Until now, Hollinger explained, the utility company had been unwilling to install gas lines into a home because it lacked a recognized owner.