Webster, Mass., to try shaming landowners into evicting squatters

Abandoned property

Abandoned property costs police departments a significant amount of money -- but is it worth it? Image: Flickr / coreyann / CC-BY-SA

The small town of Webster, Mass., is trying something new. Rather than spending $9,000 per year on enforcing property maintenance laws, the city is investing in signs. The hope is that signs will shame the owners into doing something with the property.

Webster’s abandonment problem

Like most cities in the United States, Webster has laws that building owners must keep their properties maintained. Many of the large buildings in town, however, have simply been abandoned since the downturn. The buildings are going into disrepair, and squatters are taking up residence in many of the buildings. The city of Webster is spending almost $1,000 a month sending police officers to these abandoned buildings to kick out squatters and survey conditions.

The plan for Webster buildings

Rather than sending police officers to abandoned buildings, the city council of Webster has chosen a new enforcement method. The city will be posting 4-by-8-foot signs outside abandoned buildings. The signs will have the building owner’s name, phone number and address. The idea is that people will see the signs, call the landowners and encourage them to clean up the property or seal the buildings to keep out squatters.

The cost of squatters’ rights

In Massachusetts, as with many other states, squatters’ rights are an old law coming back into vogue. As more and more properties are abandoned, squatters are moving in and calling the property their own. Webster, Mass., residents are not likely to qualify for full squatters’ rights very quickly. It takes 20 years of “adverse possession” — living in the property without permission — to claim the property as their own. While police across the nation spend millions trying to evict squatters, some question the wisdom of this move. Some squatters may actually take better care of the property than a landowner who does not live there. So, in theory, squatters could increase neighborhood property values. At the same time, having squatters in a home or building could make selling the property, if and when it is foreclosed on, very difficult.


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