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Squatting in the US: A history of unlawfully occupying buildings, land that dates back to before WWII

Squatting has a long history in the United States. In more recent years, laws protecting squatters over homeowners in many states have made this issue a difficult one to overcome.

Squatting, which may be shocking to some, has a deep history in the United States. Squatting was present during the California Gold Rush, the Great Depression and during World War II.

During the California Gold Rush, after John Sutter discovered gold on his land in the late 1840s, the land became flooded with squatters, according to History.com. 

The United States is not the only place where squatting occurs, though. Squatting also has a history in England, according to Anderson Advisors’ website, where the king’s court would often rule in favor of individuals who inhabited a space without permission from the owner. 


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The act of someone occupying property unlawfully has been a part of history for many years. Today, the way in which a squatter can come to occupy a space varies. 

There are two main circumstances that Daniel Philips, a real estate litigation partner at Belkin, Burden and Goldman law firm, has seen squatting occur.

In March 2024, he told Fox News Digital that foreclosures are a common instance when squatters will take possession of an abandoned property. Another primary case is through fraud, when an individual takes on another’s identity to fraudulently lease out an apartment or a home. 

Every state in the country has developed its own set of laws in regard to squatters, most of which make it hard to remove them from property. Most U.S. states have “squatters’ rights,” according to the American Apartment Owners Association.

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“Squatter’s rights refer to laws that allow a squatter to use or inhabit another person’s property in the event that the lawful owner does not evict or take action against the squatter,” according to the source.

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For example, in New York City, squatters can claim rights after living in a property for just 30 days. 

Traditionally, squatters’ rights apply in the event that an individual has been illegitimately living in a space for a certain period of time, according to the American Apartment Owners Association.

Today, removing a squatter from a property is typically a very long process.

“It’s a very lengthy process,” Philips told Fox News Digital. “It’s definitely a burden on small landlords who’re trying to collect rent or pay their mortgage and now you have someone living there that’s not paying you and you have to go through the court process, which is time-consuming and you have to hire an attorney typically to get the person out.”

More recently, some U.S. states have begun passing bills to protect homeowners. For example, in Florida, a bill was passed in March 2024 that gives law enforcement the power to remove offenders.

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