Occupy: Burholme

There’s no place like home — but did it be­long to a Burholme couple or a squat­ter?

Debbie Mer­rigan and her hus­band, Gary, had some fin­an­cial dif­fi­culties in fall 2009. They moved out of their house on the 7300 block of Bing­ham St. be­cause they thought it was go­ing to be sub­ject to a sher­iff’s sale. 

“We turned in the keys,” Gary Mer­rigan said Monday.

He said more was owed on the Burholme house than it was worth, and he ex­pec­ted the prop­erty would be sold. A couple months ago, when Mer­rigan saw Kev­in Brame mov­ing in, he thought that, at long last, it had in­deed been sold.

Then the Mer­rigans got a sur­prise. A friend checked prop­erty re­cords on­line, Gary Mer­rigan said, and they found out that the build­ing had nev­er been sold and that it re­mained in their name.

The city’s on­line prop­erty re­cords still list Debbie and Gary Mer­rigan as the own­ers. Debbie has a deed. She now be­lieves she soon will have the money to clear up what is owed on the house.

She wanted to take pos­ses­sion of the prop­erty, but Brame was liv­ing there.

On Monday, Brame ex­plained that he didn’t have a place to stay a few months ago and a friend in­tro­duced him to a man named Maurice who he said ren­ted the house to him for $400 a month. 

“It was des­per­a­tion,” Brame said Monday.

He said he isn’t sure of Maurice’s last name or how to get in touch with him.

On Hal­loween, Debbie Mer­rigan called po­lice to have Brame re­moved from the premises, but leg­ally, the po­lice are not able to just toss out the man she called a squat­ter, she said she was told.

“It’s an un­usu­al situ­ation,” said Mark Mroz, the 2nd Po­lice Dis­trict’s com­munity re­la­tions of­ficer.

Or­din­ar­ily, he said, po­lice can re­move squat­ters from a house, but the util­it­ies were on and Brame had a key. He’s also no stranger to the neigh­bor­hood. Brame’s moth­er, Bar­bara, lives right across the street. Brame’s driver’s li­cense lists her ad­dress.

“Un­for­tu­nately, squat­ters have rights,” said Sher­iff Bar­bara Dee­ley. “We’re will­ing to re­move him, but we need a court or­der.”

She ex­plained to Mer­rigan what she had to do to leg­ally evict the man — how long it would take and how much it would cost.

Mer­rigan said had she star­ted the pro­cess Dee­ley’s of­fice spelled out for her, which could take weeks and cost her sev­er­al hun­dred dol­lars.

Mer­rigan said she sent a let­ter to Brame in which she told him he had to be out by Monday. She said she filed a com­plaint with the Phil­adelphia pro­tho­not­ary of­fice.

However, the Mer­rigans quietly took mat­ters in­to their own hands, she said in a phone in­ter­view on Monday morn­ing. She said they had entered the house via a side win­dow, and when she spoke to a re­port­er a little after 10 a.m., her hus­band was at a hard­ware store buy­ing new locks for the prop­erty. 

She said no one was in the build­ing when she and her hus­band got in.

Mroz said po­lice last week had warned Brame he had to leave by Monday. Brame, in­ter­viewed while he was mov­ing his pos­ses­sions early Monday af­ter­noon, said he had be­lieved he was leg­ally in the build­ing, but knows he had been vic­tim­ized. 

He said the util­it­ies were on when he moved in.

PECO spokes­man Ben Arm­strong said the util­ity’s work­ers, re­spond­ing to a com­plaint, found an il­leg­al ser­vice con­nec­tion and severed it Nov. 8.

Mroz said he talked to Brame on Monday and told him he didn’t have a leg­al right to be in the Mer­rigans’ house.

“I told him you just can’t come in and say this is your prop­erty,” Mroz said.

Mroz said po­lice can’t al­ways just force people out, and they’re wary of do­ing that any­way, be­cause land­lords some­times make up stor­ies to get their ten­ants out.

The Mer­rigans’ case is not the only one in­volving prop­er­ties be­ing in­hab­ited by people who have no right to be in them. The sher­iff said her depu­ties re­move between five and 10 such people a year.

It hap­pens all over the city, said Dee­ley, who lives in Rhawn­hurst. “You just don’t see it very much in the North­east.”

If the Mer­rigans had been un­able to get in­to the house, they would have pro­ceeded with the com­plaint they had filed with the pro­tho­not­ary, and if there had been no re­sponse, a judg­ment would have been filed in de­fault and then a writ of pos­ses­sion would have been is­sued for the Mer­rigans. Then, the sher­iff’s of­fice would have con­tac­ted Brame to tell him he had to move out.

That’s what’s done in all such cases, Dee­ley said.

“We’re po­lite with them, but we let them know we are go­ing to evict them,” Dee­ley said.

In what is called “house steal­ing,” some people who have taken up res­id­ence in homes that are owned by oth­ers really think they are on the premises le­git­im­ately.

It’s more com­plic­ated than just mov­ing in, pro­sec­utors have been say­ing for the past few years. Typ­ic­ally, the real own­ers don’t know any­one is on their prop­er­ties. The people who are there might have been provided phony deeds or leases. When the real own­ers find out they have un­in­vited com­pany, they have to go through the pro­cess of es­tab­lish­ing their own­er­ship to get the people evicted if they don’t leave on their own. 

What happened to the Mer­rigans and Brame fol­lows the scen­ario. Brame said he paid rent to the man named Maurice, who he be­lieved owned the prop­erty. He said he now has nowhere to stay and he’s out $800. ••

Re­port­er John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or jloftus@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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