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In legal grey area, West Oakland resident discovers free house



Like everywhere in the Bay Area, home prices in Oakland have recently gone through the roof. The price of a house there is up almost 70% in the past two years. But West Oakland resident Steve DeCaprio has discovered an unusual way to acquire a home for free. DeCaprio has become an expert in finding and taking over abandoned homes – and it’s not as illegal as it might sound.

From the outside, DeCaprio’s house looks like a lot of the homes you might see in West Oakland. It’s stucco, split into two apartments, and has a chain-link fence in the front yard. His could maybe use a paint job.  DeCaprio is in his early 40s. By day he has a part-time job at the California League of Conservation Voters, by night he plays with his black-metal band. But mostly, he spends a lot of time on his house.

“This is still a work in progress,” says DeCaprio.

Part of the second floor doesn’t have a ceiling -- the plumbing had to be replaced when a fire melted the sewer line -- and the electricity and gas are off the grid.

“And we actually redid all the electrical,” DeCaprio explains. ”It’s all brand new up to code.”

But, DeCaprio says, the city wouldn’t issue the permits so they can’t connect to PG&E. Because even though he has basically built this house back up from scratch over the past 14 years, he doesn’t technically own it – at least not on paper.

“They said, ‘You’re a bunch of squatters [and] we don’t issue permits to squatters,’” recalls DeCaprio.

Squatting is when you live in a building that initially isn’t yours without asking anyone. And that’s exactly what DeCaprio and his housemates are doing. But, he says the law is on his side. In California, in some cases, if you squat a building long enough, it’s yours.

“You occupy a property for five years, you pay the [property] taxes and then you own it.”

The legal name for this is ‘adverse possession.’ And don’t break out your crowbar just yet, there are actually a lot more rules than that. Like it has to be your sole residence and, as DeCaprio explains, “It has to be open, notorious. You know, not sneaking in, sneaking out.”

It’s a confusing legal grey area. But it’s worth it to DeCaprio. For him, it’s partially political: he doesn’t like having to answer to banks and corporations.

“And this is the beauty of squatting, is to stop acknowledging their authority,” he says.

And it’s partially practical:  he doesn’t have a lot of money and he needs a place to live. 

That’s how he started his squatting odyssey. Back in 2000, after he had been touring with his band in Europe and staying in squats there, he found himself back in the Bay without a home and decided to try it here. Here’s how he got into his current home:

Step 1. He said that he went around the East Bay “…block by block, finding houses that looked abandoned.” Houses with their windows boarded up, with the utilities completely off, or maybe a tree going through the roof, like this one did. DeCaprio says he found at least a dozen buildings like this.

Step 2. Research. He found out “what the backstory [was] with each house.” He learned that his house had been empty for decades.

Step 3. He tried to contact the person who, technically, owned the building. That man had been dead since 1982. “And the whole idea is that once all of our research indicated that there was nobody interested in the property then we would...” 

Step 4. “Enter it.” This was the first house he entered.

But just because you’re in a house doesn’t mean you’re home free. DeCaprio has run into problems with the police before at a different squat in 2004, in South Berkeley. You can see a clip of him tussling with a Berkeley Police sergeant about the definition of the law in the 2008 documentary Shelter: A Squatumentary by director Hannah Dobbz. The neighbors there knew he was a squatter, and they didn’t like it. They said he was trespassing and kept calling the police on him. DeCaprio countered by saying, “In California and under most laws, you can’t trespass on abandoned property. It’s an oxymoron.”

But the police still kept kicking him out.

“You know they’d board it up, and then I’d come back with, like, a hammer,” DeCaprio recalls. “And then they welded the storm door shut with, with an arc welder and then I came back with a can of WD-40 and a Dremel with a diamond blade. And that’s when they, that’s when they finally were like ‘Enough’s enough, you’re going to jail.’”

DeCaprio still wouldn’t give up. He hit the books, learned property law and represented himself in court. Eventually, an heir to the house’s original owner was found and DeCaprio was found guilty by a judge of trespassing. But even then, he continued squatting and he continued studying. There are documents all over his bedroom. 

“I have a whole filing cabinet full of my own personal lawsuits,” says DeCaprio. “Probably the prudent thing would have been just to back away, but I was so angry.”

Even though he lost the Berkeley house, his current house is on track to be his. 

“I’ve been here for over a decade, and I’ve paid all the property taxes,” DeCaprio says. “So I have adverse possession times two.”

But the last time he went in front of a judge to get it transferred to his name, the judge was not convinced. He told DeCaprio to find an heir – and he may have found one – but he didn’t want to give his house away.

“Because no one who was even remotely related to the person who used to own this house even knows that this house exists. Who cares about this house? Nobody but me. Nobody cares about this house except for me.”

And in a way, he’s right. At least according to local neighborhood association member Leslie Cleaver Wood: “Squatting is absolutely not an issue for us. I think, we welcome anyone in a home that's been vacant as long as it's, again, safe, and good neighbors.”

And Margaretta Lin from Oakland’s Department of Housing and Community Development said by phone that her department only gets involved in cases of blight. Ownership, she says, is an issue for the police and the courts.

Since he started squatting, he has had to bone up on so much property law that he is on his way to passing the bar exam. 

“If and when I pass the bar,” DeCaprio explains, “I would most likely be the only attorney that specializes in squatting.”

And in the meantime, he has founded an organization called Land Action to help give the resources to other squatters to help them defend themselves, just like he did. DeCaprio says if he had it his way, there’d be millions of squatters all over the country.

But sometimes, DeCaprio made me think that for him, it almost isn’t even about the buildings, it’s about the challenge.

“Yea, I’ll get this house completely, it’ll be totally be decked out, we’ll have a hot tub in the backyard, everything will be perfect and I’ll say, ‘Alright, let’s move...Projects over...Let’s leave the fruit on the vine.’”

Because there’s always going to be another building to fix up and another judge to fight.

This piece first aired on March 3rd, 2014.