Modern-day homesteading: Taking back foreclosed homes

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You've probably seen a foreclosed home or two in your neighborhood. Maybe you even have one on your street. Is it a nuisance? Boarded up, sitting vacant, attracting looters or squatters. What if you or your neighbors got fed up and decided to take the matter into your own hands?

That's just what mortgage broker Mark Guerette did in a working class neighborhood in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He saw homes sitting vacant--the owners seem to have given up and left. Guerette went in, fixed them up, paid the taxes and started renting them out to needy families.

Sound like a good idea? Better think twice before trying it in your own neighborhood. Guerette is facing fraud charges, and his case may determine the legal validity of "adverse possession," as the practice is known.

That law is called "adverse possession," and it dates back to medieval times. The concept is that if a piece of property lies unused by its owner for a period of time, often seven years, and that property is taken care of or used by someone else without the property owner's objection, it becomes the property of whoever has been taking care of it. It's similar to the concept of "squatters rights" or to a common law marriage.

Guerette's trying his practice with 20 foreclosed, abandoned homes. He sees it as a religious ministry, but not everyone's so pleased. In addition to the charge against him, other people say adverse possession is just a fancy word for stealing.

Locally, groups like the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign have been advocating for the idea of adverse possession. The land belongs to the people who live there, they say, and they've challenged foreclosure and eviction cases based on that idea.

And the whole idea of adverse possession bears a striking similarity to another historical measure: the Homestead Act. If you could stay on a piece of land for five years and improve it, it was yours, said the government.

Imagine a modern day homestead act with foreclosed homes. Find yourself a house no one is claiming, make it liveable and contribute to your community. Could it be the kind of people's bailout that groups like the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign have been clamoring for?

Of course, it's unlikely that the banks, which actually "own" all these vacant eyesores, would ever go for it. But according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Postal Service, 131,459 residential properties in the Chicago metropolitan area sit vacant. And foreclosures are still rising. With the housing crisis still looming over our economy, does it make sense to have good houses sitting empty when families are homeless? The law may say yes, but folks like Mark Guerette say otherwise.

Photo credit: Kevin Krejci

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