By Gary Jenkins
BAPA Safety Liaison
Chicago communities – including Beverly/Morgan Park — have experienced problems with property fraud, most commonly when squatters occupy vacant homes. Although there are not a lot of vacant properties in our community, several local properties were targeted by squatters a few years ago, and it took a concerted effort by law enforcement, the 19th Ward and BAPA to have the illegal tenants removed. When it comes to property fraud and squatting, prevention is a lot more efficient than eviction.
What is a Squatter?
A squatter in someone who occupies an abandoned or vacant property without legal permission and who does not pay rent or purchase the property. In some cases, squatters commit property fraud by changing building deeds to replace the names of rightful owners.
Most of us would assume that an individual who enters a property without the owner’s permission is violating trespassing laws. In most cases, that is correct. Although squatters can be charged with trespassing, the act of squatting is considered a civil violation. Police can arrest a person for trespassing, but not for squatting.
In Illinois, the laws governing squatters are often frustrating for property owners. It is difficult to remove a squatter. In some squatter situations, the homeowner or property owner is forced to go to court and begin eviction proceedings. The eviction process can be time-consuming and a financial burden to the property owner. Falsified documents and utility bills complicate the proceedings but can also give law enforcement the proof they need to remove illegal tenants.
A few years back, an organization called the Sovereign Citizens, Indigenous Moors, a group that does not believe in the sovereignty of the government, illegally occupied eight homes in Beverly/Morgan Park. During the investigation it was determined that the group obtained falsified documents listing them as the actual homeowners. Because of the falsified documents, law enforcement was unable to remove them from the home as trespassers. Two individuals were subsequently arrested and the leader of the group was sentenced to a prison term of 14 years.
In Illinois, squatters who occupy a property without permission for 20 years and meet a few other requirements can legally seek “adverse possession,” eliminating the rightful owner’s claim on the property.
Protect Your Property
The Chicago Police Department encourages property owners/deed holders to participate in the Criminal Trespass Affidavit program, a valuable tool in combating the issue of squatters or trespassers. Property owners accepted by the Criminal Trespass Affidavit program completes paperwork that will allow, if the need arises, police to enter the property on behalf of the owner and arrest unauthorized individuals. The affidavit also authorizes Chicago Police to sign the complaint at the time of the arrest.
As part of the program, the owner’s property would be listed and monitored. No trespassing and, if warranted, Not For Sale signs would be posted on the property. For more information, visit home.chicagopolice.org.
Property owners are encouraged to check for or prevent property fraud through the Cook County Clerk’s Recording Division (formerly the Cook County Recorder of Deeds) at cookcountyclerkil.gov. On this site, you can check and confirm that the Chain-of-Title has not been changed and put a free alert on their property. The alert will result in the property owner being contacted by phone or email when any document affecting their property is filed in Recording Division.
Owners whose property is currently or will be vacant can take these actions to help prevent squatters from occupying an empty house or building:
Make sure all windows and doors are properly secured and any other possible entry points are blocked.
Display “no trespassing” signs.
Make regular visits to inspect the property and address any condition is issues.
Let neighbors know the property will be unoccupied, and ask them to keep an eye out and call police if they see suspicious activity.
Take immediate action if squatters occupy a property.
Property owners must keep in mind that arresting squatters who claim some type of property ownership is usually just the beginning of the removal process. A full eviction process may be needed to remove the squatters; Chicago Police cannot evict squatters and the process usually ends with Sheriff’s Department serving an eviction notice after the matter had been settled in court.
If you have any questions concerning squatters and property fraud, contact Officer James Connell, 22nd District CAPS office, 312-745-0570 or James.Connell@chicagopolice.org.