San Francisco Squatters

Coastal California’s tent encampments are going upscale. In some shantytowns, homeless people are reinforcing their digs with dimensional lumber and plywood. Check out this “tent”:

Hang some drywall and add a door, and it could pass for a single-family home! Compare to this 640 square foot shack selling for $2.5 million in Portrero Hill:

San Francisco could learn a lot from Mumbai; they have a lot in common. I’m not talking about the public defecation or the wealth inequality, although I kind of am. I’m talking about the dysfunctional housing market, where rent control and building restrictions have made development all but impossible. But in India, rather than try to work within the bounds of bureaucracy, enterprising residents take it upon themselves to construct illegal buildings.

Sometimes the illegal tenements collapse, sometimes they’re washed away in monsoons, but sometimes the settlements survive and eventually acquire land rights. They’re not going anywhere, might as well legalize and tax them.

San Francisco has over 8,000 homeless people. If they ditched the temporary shelters and opted for something more permanent, there’s not a lot that SF Public Works could do about it. It’s easy to sweep a tent off the sidewalk; much harder to sweep a concrete slab attached to aluminum siding. Possession is nine-tenths of the law, suckers!

Squatter’s Rights: It is generally not possible to claim adverse possession on public property unless the property has been abandoned by the local government, which most of San Francisco appears to be. In past cases, the government has been prevented from asserting ownership if the squatter has made significant improvements to the property. Given that homeless encampments represent the majority of Bay Area housing units created in the last decade, I’d say they count as an improvement.

1. Highways: Title Which an Abutter May Obtain in a Public Street by Adverse Possession. Michigan Law Review, Vol 36, No 7, May 1938.
2. Sandra Stevenson. Understanding Local Government, 2003.

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