This summer, the Governor signed three bills that made significant amendments to Michigan laws regarding squatter rights. The amendments are the culmination of rising frustration with squatters and the rights afforded to them by our legal system. Local media outlets in Detroit portrayed squatting as an increasing trend in which individuals or entire families move into a home without the consent of the owner and without paying any rent. There has also been a perceived difficulty in getting police to remove squatters under trespass laws, as some squatters present invalid rental agreements to police or claim that they have paid the owner. When this occurs, owners are typically left to start an eviction proceeding, a process that can take months.
The amendments went into effect in the fall with the purpose of remedying the above issues. While clearly aimed at limiting the number of people who squat in homes, the amendments may have an impact on urban farmers that utilize property without permission from the landowner.
The most relevant amendments were to the Judicature Act of 1961 and the Michigan Penal Code.
Public Act 223 of 2014 amended the landlord/tenant provisions of the Judicature Act. Prior to the amendments, a landowner could not unlawfully interfere with the possessory interest of the squatter, which often prohibited a landowner from changing locks or taking other measures to restrict squatters from re-entering the property. Further, the Judicature Act also stated that a property owner could not make entry onto the property by force but only in a peaceable manner. The amendments essentially carve out exceptions that enable private property owners to engage in self-help to remove squatters. Pursuant to the amendments, which can be found at MCL § 600.2918, an owner does not unlawfully interfere with an occupant’s possession if the occupant is a squatter. Therefore, a landowner can interfere with the squatter’s possession of the property by, among other things removing the squatter’s personal property and restricting the squatter’s access to the property. A property owner is also entitled to use force to enter the property if the occupant took possession by squatting, but any forcible entry may not include assaulting the squatter. These amendments enable a property owner to eject a squatter and restrict them from reentering the property without facing legal liability.
Public Act 224 of 2014 amended the Michigan Penal Code to make squatting in a person’s home a criminal offense. Prior to the amendments, penal laws regarding trespassing and breaking and entering were common in lawsuits against squatters. However, following the amendments squatting is a crime in itself. The first offense is a misdemeanor while the second, and any subsequent offense, is a felony.
Of particular concern to urban farmers are the amendments to the Judicature Act. Prior to the amendments, if a landowner wanted to remove a squatter and restrict them from reentering their property, they often had to do so by filing an eviction action. Now the Judicature Act enables landowners to remove squatters themselves. This is important for urban farmers because if one is farming land which they have no legal interest in, their access to the property can be legally restricted at any time by the landowner. Unless one is occupying a building, most urban farming squatters won’t have to worry about being charged under the amended Michigan Penal Code. However, the prospect of losing one’s farm at a moments notice and having no legal recourse should give urban farmers pause.
At the very least, urban farmers should be looking to enter legally binding agreements with landowners that establish a legal right to the land being utilized. This could take the form of either a license agreement, which gives one the right to use the property described but can be terminated at-will, or a lease agreement, which gives one the right to possess the property described. Entering an agreement will restrict an urban farmer from later obtaining ownership of the property by adverse possession. However, as my next post will detail, claiming title by adverse possession is extremely difficult in Michigan. Therefore, it is likely advantageous to enter an agreement to provide at least a semblance of land security.