Hellarity burns - Page 5

How a cauldron of squatters and property owners, stirred by green dreams and the bursting housing bubble, set an unusual Oakland house ablaze

"In the state of California, you have to be openly living in a place for five years without the titleholder trying to make you leave to win an adverse possession case."

"Adverse possession originated to prevent Native Americans from taking back land from homesteaders, but squatters turned it around, using it to protect people who take possession of unused property," says Iain Boal, a historian of the commons who teaches in the community studies department at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the author of the forthcoming book, The Long Theft: Episodes in the History of Enclosure. Boal emphasizes the large numbers of squatters in the world, a figure Robert Neuwirth, author of Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World (Routledge, 2004), pegs at 1 billion. "It is only here that squatters are seen as bizarre leftovers from the '60s," Boal says. "We are in a crisis of shelter, and people need to fill their housing needs."

DiCaprio concurs. Along with Burnett, DiCaprio was the main backer of the occupants' legal case. As we talk in a dark, live-in warehouse, he sips coffee out of a Mason jar and looks over the court case on his laptop. He says he wants to be a lawyer, but he has never been interested in making lots of money — he says he wants to "fight for housing rights." DiCaprio learned squatter law while cycling through family law court, criminal court, and federal court over a Berkeley house he was squatting and trying to win through adverse possession. The city threw him in jail, and he was released just after Pal sued the occupants of Hellarity.

He says Hellarity was different from other situations he's dealt with as a squatter. "We never thought of ourselves as squatters [at Hellarity] per se until Pal sued us and start using that language in court," he says. "Before he bought the house, no one was challenging our presence on the property. Sennet [Williams] was either actively or passively letting us stay there. By filing a claim to quiet title, Pal made it apparent the title was in question. By calling us squatters instead of tenants, they lost some claim to the property. So we took the ball and ran with it."

Their use of adverse possession was strategic, DiCaprio says, but they didn't intend to win the house that way. "We were never under any illusion that we would win ownership of the house in court," he says. "We wanted to use the court as a forum to enable us to buy the house. We were just treading water until Pal got tired and agreed to sell." The occupants say they offered him $360,000 for the house, the price it was originally listed for, but he refused to take a loss on his investment.

DiCaprio says the courts generally aren't sympathetic to squatters' cases. "Pro pers tend to be poor, so there is a class bias against them," he says, referring to people who represent themselves without a lawyer. DiCaprio says judges have rejected documents for having dirt on them and refused to give fee waivers to people with no income. "The courts do not like squatters. If you mix pro per and adverse possession, you could not have a more hostile environment against us."

For more than two years, Pal and the occupants played a cat-and-mouse game, dragging out the case and trying to complicate it in hopes the other side would just give up. Pal's lawyer, Richard Harms (who did not return Guardian calls seeking comment), objected to the terms "documents," "property," and "identify" when asked to produce evidence related to his claim. "Instead of trying to prove their case, they were just waiting for us to trip up and not file something before a deadline," says DiCaprio.

The occupants didn't slip, but as the case wore on, he and Burnett grew tired of upholding their side in court.