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How to Hang Out in a House Until It's Yours.

The cult of adverse possession is alive and well in New York City.

By: Patrick Clark

Adverse possession is the centuries-old legal principal that says, basically, if a squatter occupies a piece of land long enough, he owns it. This week, a Howard Beach man named Peter Zephyrin has been telling local news outlets that he's using adverse possession to take ownership of a boarded-up apartment complex in Queens — and that he's charging tenants $250 a week to take up residence there. Zephyrin says he has been arrested three times for trespassing on the property, according to the local Fox television affiliate.

His tenants appear to enjoy greater rights. Earlier this month, a housing court ordered the property management company responsible for the complex to replace a door it had removed from one of the occupied buildings.

So what we have is a legal tangle wrapped in a fallacy wrapped in a tragedy. The tragic part is that New York's housing market is so tight residents will pay $250 a week for an apartment without gas, a refrigerator, or a working stove. The tangle is that unlike Zephryin, his tenants appear to be protected from immediate eviction, perhaps by virtue of paying rent.

And now, the fallacy.

The apartments are in foreclosure, according to court records, and have been vacant for years, according to Fox. Zephyrin, who has been arrested for squatting before, took up residence and, according to the New York Post, installed electricity and water heaters and started charging rent.

“Imagine you woke up one day and found out the U.S. government gave you license to use your brain and do something unorthodox,” Zephyrin told the Post. “I’m taking what the lazy wealthy person left behind."

Zephyrin couldn't be reached for comment. Zara Realty, the property manager for the apartments, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

Adverse possession, the font from which squatters' rights spring, does exist, and in some cases can prevent a landowner from booting an unlawful occupant. But the crucial ingredient is time, and there are scant examples of anyone actually winning ownership of a home through adverse possession in the U.S.

In New York State, where it takes 10 years to win adverse possession, the notable cases have involved things like shuffleboard courts and chicken coops. The famous squatters in Manhattan’s East Village won ownership of their building through negotiations with the city, which owned the buildings, not by adverse possession.

Yet interest in adverse possession and squatters' rights remains strong, in some quarters. It picked up after the foreclosure crisis emptied houses, lending the idea of the little guy claiming a piece of land a kind of frontier romance.

There was the case of the Brazilian national and the Boca Raton mansion, and the time wags wondered if TV journalist Ann Curry could lose her Manhattan townhouse after a homeless man took up residence during a long renovation job. The threat of squatters owning houses through adverse possession must have seemed pretty real in Florida, where the state legislature passed a law to curtail squatters in 2013.

"Being able to take property without having to pay for it gets some people excited," said Lucas Ferrara, a real estate attorney at Newman Ferrara in New York. "But the ugly reality is, it’s just a form of legalized stealing."

Certainly the appeal of squatters' rights is apparent online, where a number of how-to guides are available, including Homes for Free and Adverse Possession. The latter is an e-book that sells for $39.95 and comes with this vision of the reader's future:

“You could be claiming ownership of highly valuable property, on a regular basis, and building a substantial real estate portfolio."

You could. Just be patient.

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