It started with a lock and a “No Trespassing” sign. They appeared one day on the fence at Lawrence and Master streets, next to a hand-painted sign reading, “La Finquita,” or little farm.
That winter, in 2016, the group of neighbors who had been tending this North Philadelphia garden for years cut the lock and kept on planting. New locks appeared. It was the start of a legal battle for possession of the property that concluded last month with a settlement.
Spoiler alert: The gardeners lost their lot. La Finquita is gone now, but questions remain about what adverse possession, or “squatter’s law,” should mean in practice. In Pennsylvania, this legal principle allows someone who has maintained and improved a neglected piece of property for at least 21 years to gain legal ownership of it. Despite a long, recorded history of community use, La Finquita could not easily claim its land.
It’s a situation many informal gardens could find themselves in. As Philadelphia’s real estate market continues to heat up, La Finquita won’t be the last to face such a challenge.
“The fact that we settled doesn’t mean this was legal or all right,” said Jessica Noon, one of La Finquita’s main volunteers and a key figure in the legal battle. “The whole vacant-land issue here, the city is so far behind.”
La Finquita’s lawyers planned to challenge two aspects of the sale: first, whether the gardeners should, in fact, have been considered the legal owners because of adverse possession, and second, whether the developer who bought the lot acquired the title legally. La Finquita settled before either claim could be argued in court, but both issues are increasingly common in Philadelphia, said Amy Laura Cahn, an attorney now with the Massachusetts-based Conservation Law Foundation who represented the farm as a lawyer for the Public Interest Law Center.
The Neighborhood Garden Trust estimates that more than 200 gardens are threatened by insecure land tenure and are at risk for redevelopment. And it’s not just gardens. Homeowners have lost their houses in scams involving deeds, and many struggle to prove ownership because of tangled titles, which can exempt them from certain repair or tax-relief programs, exacerbating the possibility they will lose their houses.
“With changes in the real estate market, people are seeing real opportunities to make money,” said Cahn. “It impacts people not just [in] the garden, but in their homes.”
Speaking after the settlement, Cahn said that other farms and gardens should treat adverse possession as a proactive tool. It’s easier to make the claim before a developer has purchased the lot and an unfamiliar lock shows up on the fence. Same goes for clearing questions about title. It’s too late for La Finquita to do either, but the garden’s purchase can still serve as a cautionary tale. Spaces like this have a proven benefit in their communities. Studies show they can improve neighborhood safety and health. They may even contribute to the rising property values and development interest that eventually lead to their demise.
Understanding how one farm disappeared may help others stick around.
La Finquita’s story began back in 1988. The Catholic Worker, a Christian anarchist organization that clothes, feeds, and houses the poor, had recently set up a house in South Kensington, a very-low-income neighborhood at the time. There was a vacant lot at Lawrence and Master, and the Catholic Worker began to clear it. The lot had once been a tire factory, owned by Pyramid Tire & Rubber until the company abandoned it around 1979.
Members of the Catholic Worker brought in topsoil and invited the community to garden. Over the years, involvement fluctuated: Different neighbors showed up or dropped out; the Catholic Worker’s connection to the garden became more oblique.
But gardening continued apace. About 2010, with the neighborhood in the early throes of gentrification, a new group of younger gardeners got involved and began a revitalization. (Full disclosure: For a time in 2016 and 2017, I lived nearby and volunteered there too.) The gardeners slowly transformed the individual plots into a collectively tended farm, naming and incorporating it as La Finquita.
Around that time, with development slowly encroaching, the gardeners spoke to City Council President Darrell Clarke’s office about preserving the lot. The Philadelphia Land Bank, a city agency created in 2013 to streamline the process of acquiring and disposing of vacant land, was just getting underway. As a tax-delinquent property, La Finquita could have been eligible for city acquisition. The land bank might have cleared the debt and put it up for sheriff’s sale, where the gardeners could have tried to purchase it.
But, as Catalina Jaramillo wrote for PlanPhilly earlier this year, though the land bank was established to help prevent situations like La Finquita’s, gardeners have found it a less-than-useful tool. “Gardeners continue to see their communal plots sold by city agencies at public sales and through private transactions,” she wrote. “Many in the urban agriculture community say the Philadelphia Land Bank, an agency created in part to ease this problem, is becoming more of an obstacle than a solution.”
By its own metrics, the agency is way behind. Its strategic plan commits the land bank to acquiring 20 parcels for gardens in this fiscal year, which ends June 30, but so far it has acquired just two. The land bank also was supposed to sell 33 vacant parcels to community-agriculture organizations, but has instead issued only nine temporary leases.
When La Finquita sought protection through the land bank, the gardeners were told by Clarke’s office that going to sheriff’s sale could be risky — anyone could outbid them. The gardeners got reassurances that at least the city would not take the property and send it to auction without notifying them. (Clarke’s office said in an email that it was “tangentially involved” in the case and “generally supportive” of community farms like La Finquita.) As Jaramillo reported, the odds of success with the land bank would have been slim: Of the 400 requests the agency has received from community gardens, only a small number have met the requirements for city acquisition.
The gardeners might have tried to make an adverse-possession claim at that point, going to court to argue that the Catholic Worker should own the plot based on its history of use, but they did not. Instead, they set aside the question of ownership, and set about trying to grow affordable produce.
"I didn't think they could grow that much food here,” Noon remembered. “But, totally, they did, they could."
The first year the gardeners weighed their yields, they had grown more than 1,000 pounds of produce. The next year, more than 2,000. Vegetables sold at low prices at a weekend farmstand: eggplant for $1.50 per pound; kale for $1.50 a bunch, with discounts for anyone who volunteered labor. Whatever didn’t sell, the gardeners donated to the Catholic Worker, still two blocks away, to use in its daily soup kitchen.
That was the state of affairs in 2016, when the “No Trespassing” sign first appeared on La Finquita’s gate. Legally, the lot’s owner of record was still Pyramid Tire & Rubber. The gardeners soon learned that a real estate broker, John Clinton Goode, had purchased the deed from the children of one of the company’s now-deceased founders for $30,000. Goode immediately sold it to developer Mayrone LLC for $368,000. Mayrone also paid the city $58,531 in back taxes and fees.
That was troubling to the gardeners, but they thought they had obvious legal standing to fight the sale: The lot had been a garden in one way or another since 1988. Under Pennsylvania law, a party can claim ownership of a property if it has asserted “actual, continuous, exclusive, visible, notorious, distinct, and hostile possession of the land for twenty-one years.”
La Finquita seemed like a textbook case, but being on the defensive was a distinct disadvantage. “All the developers had to do was poke one hole, just one interruption in that continuous possession,” said Ned Rahn, an attorney at Saul Ewing LLP, which served as co-counsel.
The requirement of “exclusive” possession also proved difficult. A group of neighbors couldn’t claim to meet it. Only an organization, individual, or family could. It had to be the Catholic Worker that filed the lawsuit, the Catholic Worker that could prove “actual, continuous, exclusive, visible, notorious, distinct, and hostile possession.” And that wasn’t possible because of the organization’s own anarchist principles.
“One of the lessons here is we need better methods to preserve spaces that are held as common,” said the Public Interest Law Center’s Cahn. “The real estate world’s conception of what property rights should look like doesn’t always comport with what a community believes or a community does. It has been fully within the Catholic Worker’s mission, probably dating back to [founder] Dorothy Day, to be as inclusive as possible. But the developer’s notion of property rights is to show possession meant being exclusive, keeping people out. Why would the Catholic Worker want to do that for a community garden?”
Indeed, when the most active group of gardeners went around the neighborhood knocking on doors to make them aware of the legal case, they found that nearly everyone had interacted with the garden. “I used to have a plot there,” people would tell Noon. Everyone seemed in support. "They can't take that, that's the last thing we have left,” they would say. "We don't need more houses.”
Yet the only way the gardeners could make their case was to exaggerate the extent of the Catholic Worker’s involvement. It wasn’t enough that produce went to the soup kitchen. They had to prove that the Catholic Worker had played gatekeeper and manager, but that had never been the case.
“The issue it’s boiling down to is these inherently inclusive groups, can they exclusively possess space or possess property under the strict requirement of the laws?” said Mary Beth Schluckebier, a case lead at Saul Ewing LLP. “We thought we had strong arguments for why that can be the case.”
On top of the adverse-possession claim, the lawyers planned to challenge Mayrone’s legal title. The lot’s owner of record had been the corporation, but the deed on which Mayrone relied was executed by the co-executors of the estate of the late wife of Pyramid’s founder. That may well have given them every legal right to dispose of the property, but the heirs could produce no evidence that their mother had actually owned any stock in Pyramid, let alone been its majority shareholder.
In fact, they provided no documentation of who owned Pyramid’s stock, no evidence of who owned the company. Given those gaps, real estate attorney Nina Segre filed an expert report in support of La Finquita’s claims, writing that it was “at best, speculative to conclude that the grantors of the deed had the authority to convey good title to the property.”
Lawyers for Mayrone did not respond to a request for comment.
Also seemingly in Finquita’s favor: A title insurance company had denied Mayrone coverage, writing in a letter that a visual inspection provided clear evidence that the lot was being used as a garden. In a deposition, Erroll McAlinden, one of Mayrone’s principals, told a different story. He called the lot unrecognizable as a garden. Though he did see a shed on the property, he said, when he visited in winter 2015 it just looked like a vacant lot, covered in snow. According to the weather-forecasting service Weather Underground, no snow fell in November or December 2015.
La Finquita’s lawyers never got to argue their case, however. In the middle of all this, the Catholic Worker house on Jefferson Street was struggling. A neighbor had called the Department of Licenses and Inspections on the house because participants in the soup kitchen were sitting on their stoop. That led to questions about whether the Catholic Worker had the proper licenses to operate in the first place. The burden had fallen on the organization to front La Finquita’s case, but the reality was the Catholic Worker had played only a tangential role in the garden in recent years and had other problems to worry about. The board made the decision to settle, and there wasn’t much the gardeners could do about it.
Catherine Mondi, board president of the Catholic Worker, said the neighborhood had just changed. Lower-income residents were being pushed out. It wasn’t clear to her that there would be a need for the soup kitchen any longer, or the garden. In her more idealistic days, she might have hoped the city would step in, but after a career at the Department of Human Services, she’d lost that faith.
“I don’t believe they are concerned about the people who have lived here,” she said. “From the city’s point of view, they want to embellish their tax base, I understand that. But from an ethical point of view, I would have hoped for more from them.”
The Catholic Worker settled with Mayrone for an undisclosed sum, to be used to set up a new garden elsewhere. The gardeners had to clear out by May 1. They were stunned.
"Nothing will replace this space in terms of the community or farming value,” said Noon. When the farewell party was over, "I felt like someone I was in love with was like, 'I'm never going to see you again.’ ”
Other gardens have been luckier. Several, including one managed by the residential addiction-recovery community New Jerusalem, have won adverse-possession claims in recent years.
“The difference, and I think it’s a really important difference to highlight, is that New Jerusalem was proactive,” said Ebony Griffin of the Public Interest Law Center. “They were not under any present threat of development or anything like that.” The original owner of the lot did not come forward to challenge the claim.
Other gardens should take this to heart and continue to use adverse possession, Cahn said, but “we need to bolster the other tools that Philadelphia has.” The land bank needs to be more of a reliable aid, she said. Gardens could be granted conservatorship, which gives them legal roles stewarding vacant properties, and a clearer path to title. Even eminent domain should be on the table as a last resort, she added, with the city taking ownership and giving property to gardeners.
“There are tools, but all of the tools can be labor-intensive, some of them can be costly, and they require political will,” Cahn said.
By May 20, La Finquita’s shed and farmstand were gone. For the first time in nearly 30 years, the property looked as Mayrone claimed it did when the first “No Trespassing” sign went up on the fence:
Like just another vacant lot.
This article has been updated to correct the affiliations of attorneys Amy Cahn and Ebony Griffin.