The new Philadelphia Squatter Law allows for the arrest of innocent victims of rental scams.
Last June, 2018, Philadelphia City Council passed a new law creating civil penalties and potential arrest of people found to be occupying residential properties without the owner\’s permission. This law overlaps with existing penalties for criminal trespass and theft that are already on the books. Property owners complained that the police would not enforce those laws, sending victims to landlord tenant court instead. They argued that going to court to get a squatter out could be a costly and time consuming matter.
The new legislation tries to remedy this situation by creating a process which is triggered by the owner filing an affidavit alleging the occupant of their property is a squatter. The police department would be compelled to investigate once an affidavit is filed and the courts would have to expedite the hearings considering such matters.
What the law fails to do is to protect the many tenants who are victims of fraudulent schemes by scam artists who trick unsuspecting renters into paying rent to them even though they are not the owner. Tenants who use online services to find properties are often easy prey for such criminals and these tenants become squatters even though they paid money and acted in good faith. The tenants just did not know that the person with whom they were dealing had illegally changed the locks and was pretending to be the owner.
Councilwoman Cherelle Parker has introduced a bill which would protect not only the owners but also the innocent tenant victims of these rental scams. It would do this by defining more carefully who a squatter is. Tenants who were proven to be victims of rental scams would still have to move but they would not be arrested or thrown out without a fair hearing.
TURN finds any compromise of a tenant\’s right to due process a very troubling step towards a police state none of us want. We would prefer to see owners of vacant properties be required to get vacant property licenses and take security measures like installing surveillance cameras. Using the police to protect vacant properties and to intimidate and harass unsuspecting tenants is not the way to go. Councilwoman Parker\’s bill is a balanced approach and an important step towards restoring the due process we all cherish.