July 19, 2011 -- Kenneth Robinson lives on Waterford Drive in Flower Mound, Texas, but he doesn't own or rent the home he claims he has a right to live in.
The home was in foreclosure, and the owner abandoned the property. That's when Robinson swooped in and, after submitting a $16 filing fee at the local courthouse, claimed the law of "adverse possession" gave him the right to occupy the home.
Adverse possession is a common law concept developed in the 1800s. According to Lucas A. Ferrara, a partner in Newman Ferrara, a New York City real estate law firm, adverse possession was enacted to ensure that property wasn't abandoned and was "maintained and monitored." It requires the posting of a clear, public notice that someone is at the property -- hence the court filing -- and that someone would remain there for a specific period of time, usually 10 years.
After the time requirement is satisfied, the Robinsons of the world have the opportunity to claim clear title to the property. In the meantime, the original property owner could fight the action, but it would be costly. And since the house has already been abandoned it's not likely the original owner would wage an expensive legal battle to get it back. The mortgage holder would have to fight a court action too.
The growing number of abandoned homes brought on by the foreclosure crisis has produced a small buzz around the idea of adverse possession.
A spokesman for the National Association of Realtors, however, said adverse possession wasn't very common and wasn't on the association's radar screen.
But a quick Google search, however, turned up plenty of websites willing to show anyone how to do what Ken Robinson did.
At AdversePossession.com, for example, for a mere $39.95, "average people" can learn how to "acquire valuable real estate for free." The site takes steps to assure potential Robinsons that adverse possession is not squatting. "Squatter," says the site, "is an unfortunate and negative term used to describe someone who unlawfully occupies a vacant property or other real estate." Nor is occupying abandoned homes for financial gain immoral, according to the site. It's "doing the neighborhood a favor."
Robinson's new neighbors see it differently. They told local reporters that "If he [Robinson] wants the house, buy the house like everyone else had to. ..."
And Ferrara said, "it's quite an un-American notion that someone can take another's property without paying for it. ... After all, even the government has to pay for your property if it decides to take it from you."
David DeCosse, the director of campus ethics programs at the Markkulla Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said that even though Robinson may have a right to do what he's doing, it's not necessarily the right thing to do.
Some of the great moral thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas, said DeCosse, would argue that in the case of an extreme emergency, it would be OK to do something like take food from a grocery store because food is meant to support and address human needs. So stealing would be OK in certain circumstances. But if there is no emergency, "it offends our moral sensibilities," said DeCosse. "What may be legally permissible is not necessarily ethically right."