The guilty plea last week by the North Pond Hermit Chris Knight along with recent news that three persons have been charged in recent days with criminal trespassing for setting up house in an abandoned building in Livermore Falls have once again shed a spotlight on the practice of alleged squatter interaction with private premises in Maine.

It’s also an occasion to take a look at some other instances of such alleged conduct. Indeed, it’s an instance of supposed squatting here in Maine that gave rise to the first recorded use of the term. This occurred in a letter from James Madison to George Washington in 1788, when Madison lamented the existence of the phenomenon in Maine.

Squatters seem to fall into two basic sets of behavior patterns. The first of these are those like the North Pond Hermit who do so clandestinely. The second of these are those who like the pioneer Maine settlers in Washington’s time, who do so openly.

Clandestine Squatting

Somehow, those that do so secretly are the subject of the most popular interest. Indeed, the revelation of Knight’s 27-year adventure this spring captured international headlines and has been made the subject of a full length feature movie documentary. Knight’s folk hero status is tainted by the many theft and burglaries he acknowledged committing during his decades’ long retreat. If he’d hunted and fished for survival he’d have likely escaped the clutches of the criminal justice system even though there’s a Robin Hood like respect occasionally afforded someone who makes off with the goods from those in more affluent circumstances.

Knight’s under-the-radar escapades have counterparts elsewhere. Some years ago two Colby College students — unable to afford the institution’s room and board — set up a poly hut in a wooden area on Mayflower Hill. Though the make-shift dwelling was, like Knight’s, designed to be obscured from view, somehow campus authorities got wind of it and after a few months wound up raiding the place and having it torn down.

More successful at by-passing university housing, and illustrating how to perhaps avoid squatter status, however, was a Duke University graduate student named Ken Ilgunas. He did this by secretly living for two years in an old Ford Econoline van. The University’s gym and library were also places that helped spare him deprivations. Though Ilgunas has since gone public with a book about the venture, Walden on Wheels, he at the time – back in 2009 to 2011 – was intent on keeping the venture secret.

Most, however, who undertake clandestine life styles are not likely to write a book about the subject. Tunnel dwellers in such major cities as New York and Las Vegas come to mind.

Open Squatting

Those accused of setting up house in an abandoned building in Livermore Falls allegedly seem to have been taking a page out of the book of the more traditional “open” squatters, those who do so in a bit more conspicuous view than those in the mold of Chris Knight. The “open” squatters today usually are much more fleeting than those like Knight who take great pains to conceal their existence.

Some, such as those in the “Occupy Wall Street” or “Occupy Maine” movements engage in squatting as part of a political protest statement, usually occupying public property. Other “open” squatters do so out of a desperate pursuit for affordable housing, typically in home or apartment dwellings vacated by families facing foreclosure or eviction. They sometimes catch inattentive landlords or remotely located mortgage holders off guard.

Still other open squatters engage in the process with less noble motives. Such appeared to have been the case a year ago in Bangor when authorities came across four transients in an unrented apartment who told police “they came to party.” The rightful owner of the property in this case wasn’t far away and they wound up being arrested.

In Maine – as elsewhere in the country – common squatting episodes in the recent foreclosure crisis have featured people who occupy “zombie homes.” These are places that both legitimate home owners and foreclosing banks have simply walked away from due to both depressed market conditions and the deteriorated conditions typically afflicting dwellings that are financially “under water,” meaning those where the amount owed far exceeds the salvage value of the vacated premises.

The practice begins when homeowners who stop making mortgage payments throw in the towel – sometimes at the same time also as a divorce or other family domestic challenge – and move out. Meantime, the foreclosure process, which in Maine and elsewhere can often take many months and sometimes years to complete, leaves the property in limbo. By the time the bank gets to the brink of seizing the property it has suffered such a further decline in value due to the inability or unwillingness of anyone to perform repairs that the bank itself also takes a walk.

According to the real estate data company, Realty Trac, Maine is one of eleven states with a high incidence of vacant foreclosure properties. This is attributable in part to the longer than usual time period it takes to complete a foreclosure in Maine, which according to Federal Home Loan Board statistics is about 570 days, giving the state the sixth longest foreclosure time in the country. Though by no means all the vacant properties are occupied by squatters their abandonment are a tempting invitation to them.

The nature of foreclosures in Maine are yet another reminder of how squatting – brought to George Washington’s attention by James Madison when reporting on the condition in Maine – in a variety of forms continues anew.

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail: [email protected]

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