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Should This Couple Be Allowed to Squat?

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Photo of Michael Donley and Carmilla Manzanet via DNAInfo.com

A couple in a severe financial crunch thought they found a home they could call their own when they moved their possessions, including their cat, into a two-story, three-bedroom home in Chicago. However, Michael Donley, 46, and Carmilla Manzanet, 43, had their hopes dashed when they were given the boot, even after they invested $3,000 ($1,000 of their own money and $2,000 from donations) on repairs.

Via DNA Info:

On Tuesday, the couple of 15 years stood outside the home at 1527 W. Birchwood Ave. along with some supporters to ask for their stuff back, but also to call attention to the fact that they and millions of others have a “lack of access to the American dream, which is home ownership.”

“It’s obvious we occupied this house because of lack of funds,” said Donley, who works as a salesman for a service that connects people to lawyers. “We needed a place to stay.

“We know what we were doing was an occupation,” he added. “The American Dream is home ownership, not home renter-ship.”

The couple explained that they began squatting in the home April 1 after they lost their eligibility for Section 8 housing assistance, fell upon hard times and were forced to move out of their apartment north of Howard Street in Rogers Park.

They considered moving to a shelter, but hated the idea.

“Shelters are what they are. You’re almost in some state of captivity in a shelter,” Donley said. “The need for the address is right up there with oxygen. You need it.”

After reading about an Illinois statute known as “Adverse Possession” — which allows someone to claim ownership of an abandoned or unclaimed property under certain circumstances after 20 years of occupation — the couple started searching for a vacant home. They found the Birchwood place not far from where they had lived.

They first entered the home on Feb. 25 to assess whether it was livable. They then spent $1,000 of their own money and $2,000 in donations from groups like Communities United Against Foreclosure and Eviction to remove portions of the home’s ceiling and floor after apparent water damage caused by a busted toilet and sink on the second floor.

They enlisted their friends to help, and rented a 20-yard long trash bin after amassing a few tons of refuse.

“We could live here and still do some good for the community,” said Manzanet, who is unemployed. “We did something that the banks didn’t do — all they did was board it up and lock it up.

“We weren’t there to destroy the property,” she added. “We were there to beautify it.”

They said neighbors had a mixed reaction to their presence, since they did fix up a home that had been empty for years. As far as they know, no one on the block called police or the home’s owner to alert them.

But on April 25, Invitation Homes, which purchased the bank-owned property about the time the couple moved in, took notice after a locksmith came to change the locks and saw the couple. The owner called the police a few days later.

Invitation Homes, the Texas-based company that now owns the house, has 1,200 units throughout the Midwest that are being rented out. A spokesman for the company said they purchased the home under their normal business plan of buying homes and by definition, the couple is trespassing. As a result, said company felt obligated to get the authorities involved for everybody’s safety.

Donley said several officers raided the home with guns drawn before arresting he and Manzanet. They returned to the house the same only to discover that the locks had been changed — with their furniture, pet cat, pet turtle and clothing still inside.

They returned to the home few days later so that they could figure out how to get their things but were arrested again and charged with criminal trespassing. Eventually they convinced the company to allow them to get the cat, which was moved to a friend’s house. The turtle was never recovered from the home but there are several protestors in support of the couples plight.

It got so bad that on Saturday night, the couple rode the Red Line through the night after they couldn’t find a place to stay.

An Invitation Homes spokesperson said the property would be renovated and rented out within the next several months but they have no plans to compensate the couple for the repairs they made.

“They’re not owners of the home in any way, so I don’t think that has any connection to us,” he told DNA Info. However, they are working with Donley and Manzanet to grant them access to their possessions, even though the company has no legal obligation to do so.