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Shutting the door on squatters

LAW | States begin to fight back against unauthorized property invaders

A squatter removes belongings from an apartment as constables serve an eviction order in Phoenix, Ariz. John Moore / Getty Images

Shutting the door on squatters
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On a quiet street in Jacksonville, Fla., tidy cottages sit tucked beneath towering live oaks, and tufts of Spanish moss sway in the breeze. In this neighborhood north of downtown, families have lived for generations. Yet West 18th Street is where Patti Peeples’ property investment dreams turned into a nightmare.

When Peeples’ long-term tenant moved out of her rental property, she decided to place it on the market. After a few upgrades, she listed the home and received an offer. Before closing the sale, Peeples went to check on the property again.

Surprisingly, the house was not empty. Two squatters had drilled out the locks and moved in.

After a confrontation with the two women, Peeples called the police. When officers arrived, the women claimed they were renters. Instead of removing the squatters, the officers told Peeples she would be arrested if she walked into the house uninvited, saying it violated the tenants’ rights. As far as the police were concerned, it was a civil matter Peeples would have to settle in court.

The squatters offered a solution. They would leave if Peeples paid them $2,500. “I refused,” Peeples told me. “It is extortion.”

Squatters have made headlines in multiple states in recent months for exploiting legal loopholes to claim rights not theirs—often by producing falsified rental agreements that lead to long legal battles for homeowners. Hopefully, that is beginning to change: Amid the rash of squatters, some states are updating laws to make it easier to remove them.

Six weeks after her confrontation with the squatters, Peeples had the documentation she needed for an eviction. By the time they were served, the squatters had quietly slipped out. But they’d left the house a wreck: Newly painted walls had gaping holes from what appeared to be a sledgehammer, fireplace marble tiles were smashed, and a cupboard door hung precariously from broken hinges. The damage cost her $40,000.

“It drains the homeowner dry,” she said.

The Homestead Act of 1862 gave citizens up to 160 acres of land provided they improved it, lived on it, and paid a registration fee. Many states today have “squatters’ rights” laws allowing squatters to claim ownership of property if they live in it and care for it for a specified number of years. Such laws, though, were never intended to allow a person to move into a neighbor’s home and take possession of it or live rent-free.

Paul Kraft, an attorney who worked for six years as a police officer in Folsom, Calif., in the 1990s, explained why removing squatters is not always as simple as calling the police with a trespassing claim.

“We would get a call that someone was trespassing, and when we responded, the squatter would say they have the right to be there,” he said. “The law officer is not the one to resolve the dispute of ‘He said, she said.’ That is what the judicial system is for.”

Removing squatters is no easy feat in California. Craig Sandberg, an attorney in El Dorado County, said the only legal recourse is for property owners to file an “unlawful detainer” lawsuit, a lengthy and expensive process.

“In bigger counties, where the court system is backed up, it can take several months to get an eviction filed,” he said. “Squatters get free rent for 6-8 months, and it is illegal for the owner to turn off utilities and water to make the home uninhabitable.”

The laws need to change. They benefit squatters more than protect property owners.

In 2022, a squatter broke into the home of California resident Kim Swift’s recently deceased brother.

“My sister drove past the house to check on it so we could rent it out,” said Swift. “She opened the door to find sleeping bags, food, and trash.”

Since the squatter was not on the property at the time, Swift and her family were able to change the locks. After repairing $20,000 in damage, they found tenants. However, according to Swift, the squatter continued to show up and harass the legal tenants, saying the house belonged to him. The Swifts eventually had to obtain a restraining order.

“The laws need to change,” Swift said. “They benefit squatters more than protect property owners.”

In February, Peeples spoke before the Florida Legislature about her squatter ordeal, prompting lawmakers unanimously to pass a bipartisan bill making squatting a misdemeanor crime. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 621 on March 27. Under the new law, a property owner can request law enforcement remove a squatter immediately if the person has unlawfully entered or has refused to leave after being confronted by the homeowner.

The law also makes it a first-degree misdemeanor to make a false statement in writing or provide false documents conveying property rights. It makes it a second-degree felony for squatters to cause $1,000 or more in damages.

Atlanta is home to an estimated 1,200 or more squatters. On April 24, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill giving accused squatters three days to prove their right to be on the property before the offense becomes a felony. Besides Florida and Georgia, West Virginia, New York, and Tennessee have also passed laws this year protecting property owner rights. (Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs vetoed a squatter eviction bill in April, claiming it could undermine tenants’ rights.)

Some people, frustrated by legal hurdles, have taken matters into their own hands.

California resident Flash Shelton hadn’t heard about the widespread squatter problem until one moved into his mother’s vacant house in Northern California. She had moved out shortly after Shelton’s father died and planned to rent it out.

“I called law enforcement, but was told they couldn’t do anything,” said Shelton. So he decided to out-squat the squatters: He moved into the house himself. “In the end, I gave them two choices,” he said. “They could leave with their furniture, or without it.”

The charismatic handyman from Simi Valley later posted online a video about his ordeal that received over 6 million views. A constant stream of calls from homeowners in similar situations prompted him to create and offer squatter removal consultations.

For her part, Peeples is thankful to be part of changing the laws. She is personally aware of at least four houses with squatters living in them, she said. “And that’s just in my little 1-square-mile neighborhood.”

—Marci Seither is a writer based in Tennessee and a graduate of the 2024 World Journalism Institute mid-career course


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