Mansion squatters return in a big way
By this chapter of this curious tale, Mark von der Burg surely is wondering: Why me? What did I do to deserve this? He's the Eastside real-estate...
Seattle Times staff columnist
By this chapter of this curious tale, Mark von der Burg surely is wondering: Why me? What did I do to deserve this?
He's the Eastside real-estate agent who, two months ago while prepping for an open house to sell a $3.3 million mansion in Kirkland, was stunned to find that complete strangers had moved in and were staking a tortured legal claim to the foreclosed property.
The squatters story went national. It was an apt symbol of the housing meltdown. At the time, I wrote that "mansion squatting" might be the "most naked expression yet of what the crash was all about — the lure of something for nothing."
Now, I swear I didn't mean the word "naked" literally. But I'll get to that twist in a minute.
Von der Burg says that while the mansion-squatting story may have been entertaining — it ended when police retook control of the house for the bank that owned it — it cost his client, a bank, $35,000 in legal fees and bills for locksmiths, security and cleanup. So count him as not amused that this week, the same team of squatters apparently attempted to stake claims to three new mansions on the Eastside — including a $2.2 million, 5,000-square-foot Craftsman in Bellevue for which von der Burg is, once again, the listing agent.
"These people need to be stopped," he said. "How long are we going to let this go on?"
Police say no one has as yet moved into any of the houses. But all three had letters tacked to the front doors ordering anyone claiming ownership "to surrender possession within three days." And then threatening "judicial proceedings" against anyone who doesn't comply.
The name and signature of James McClung was on all three letters. He's a former Bothell real-estate agent and owner of NW Note Elimination, a company he runs with Jill Lane — the woman who was arrested for squatting in the Kirkland mansion in June.
Neither McClung nor Lane got back to me this week. But both said in June that despite being kicked out of the Kirkland mansion, they had a list of at least 10 other houses in the Seattle area to which they intended to stake claims. All the houses were tied to bank failures — the bank holding the loan on the properties had gone under and had its assets transferred to another bank, or to the federal government.
The pair hopes that the actual documentation of who owns these properties was mislaid or improperly recorded as mortgages were divided and resold on Wall Street during the bubble years. It has become a strategy in foreclosure cases around the country to force banks to "show me the note."
Even if the banks can't, why these two should get these houses is beyond me. And also beyond the police.
"It's becoming exasperating," said Capt. Mike Ursino, of the Kirkland police. (Two of the new targeted properties are in Kirkland.) "McClung's thinking is that if he keeps trying, one day he's going to win and he'll miraculously have a million-dollar house.
"Meanwhile, everybody else goes out and works for what they've got."
Ursino said "No trespassing" signs have been posted at the two Kirkland houses, "to give us a bit more of a hammer if anyone tries to move in." He said Lane still hasn't been charged with any crime for the June squatting, though the Kirkland city attorney may still do so.
Ursino said detectives questioned McClung back in June and, like me, found he had no moral or ethical qualms at all about what he's doing.
"He was very open about it, I'll give him that. I don't think he even knows he's doing anything wrong," Ursino said.
He's not all talk. In June I featured a man who said he had been scammed after he paid McClung's company to stake him a claim to an empty house. I confronted McClung about this, and, insisting his goal is to stick it to the banks and help the little guy, he pledged to return the man's money.
I was skeptical, to say the least. But the man, Michael Greif, wrote a few weeks ago to report that McClung had paid the money back, true to his word.
The squatters have also said they want to give the proceeds from the claimed houses to the poor or to affordable-housing groups.
Is it possible these squatters are some sort of "honest thieves?" I asked Capt. Ursino. "I don't know about that," he said. "But the whole thing is about the darndest thing I've ever heard."
Von der Burg, the real-estate agent who now finds himself plagued by the squatters, says the Robin Hood, punish-the-banks story line is baloney.
In June, he says, the squatters used the Kirkland house for partying, not charity.
"They had a big blowout there, with naked couples running around," von der Burg says.
"When you have to clean up after something like that, you lose your patience for all this spin," he said.
He's right of course. Maybe we have treated this too lightly. The police ought to get tougher on what is, let's face it, attempted stealing. And the squatters, if they have any conscience, ought to slink off and get real jobs.
But barring any action on those two fronts, and in the interests of understanding more fully a phenomenon that is clearly an echo of America's housing boom: Can I come to the next squatting party?
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to email@example.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
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