In recent months, a series of high-profile incidents of squatting, the practice of occupying a property you don’t own, have captured headlines across the country. Though typically associated with homeless people who inhabit abandoned properties, the latest cases have involved squatters unlawfully entering temporarily unoccupied homes and apartments, including in upscale neighborhoods like Kips Bay in Manhattan. Many states’ cumbersome eviction laws have made it tough at best to remove these trespassers, and at worst have led to violent confrontations, including the apparent murder of a woman in Manhattan by two squatters at her mother’s apartment. The laws in these locations grant interlopers extraordinary rights, even when they’ve criminally entered a property. With social media posts informing would-be trespassers how to lay claim to vacant properties, some states are moving to reform their laws to stem a potential wave of home and apartment seizures.

American property owners might be shocked to learn that in some states individuals who broke into a home or otherwise occupy a property, like a vacation retreat that the owner uses only occasionally, can escape immediate arrest for trespassing by claiming squatters’ rights. In some cases, the interlopers can entangle the rightful owner in a lengthy eviction process if they have resided in the property for as little as a few nights. In more than two-thirds of states, for instance, once individuals who’ve taken up residence claim that they are the property’s legitimate occupants, owners must file an eviction notice, which gives the squatters 30 days or more to stay put. After that, an often-lengthy eviction process begins that bars the rightful owner from entering the property, changing the locks, or otherwise protecting his possessions. Even in the increasingly common cases of squatters producing fake lease documents, it can take months for an owner to regain possession of a property.

These policies often produce absurd results. In Flushing, Queens, for instance, squatters took over a woman’s dead parents’ home as she was trying to sell it. When the woman entered the home and confronted them, they called the police, who told the woman that she had no right to change the locks because the intruders had claimed they were the rightful tenants. Police ultimately arrested the rightful owner for attempting “unlawful eviction.” Similarly, police told a Pennsylvania man trying to sell his renovated Philadelphia home that they couldn’t remove trespassers, whom they said had “squatters’ rights.” Rather than endure the up to six-month process to evict the squatters, the man paid them $1,200 to leave. Meantime, Georgia squatters who saw an ad for a property for rent moved in and provided a fake lease to the police, who told the owner they could do nothing until he went through the court system to get them evicted. And police informed a Houston rental-property owner that they couldn’t evict squatters because her claim that the intruders were illegally occupying the property was a “civil matter” that had to be dealt with in court, despite visible signs of forced entry.

So-called squatters’ laws are supposed to help protect the rights of legitimate tenants or those who have cared for an unclaimed property for years, but squatting is increasingly a scam perpetrated by lawbreakers. The practice has led to several violent confrontations around the country. Most recently, two squatters allegedly killed Nadia Vitel when she visited her dead mother’s Manhattan apartment, which police claim the squatters had illegally entered. A Miami squatter earlier this year shot two cops who showed up at the house he was occupying after the owner discovered that he had a gun on the property. In one gruesome case, squatters in Las Vegas moved into a home that appeared unoccupied, discovered its owner’s dead body, dismembered it, and buried it in the backyard so that they could take over the home.

Growing publicity around such cases, as well as reports of squatters exploiting legal loopholes, have prompted pushback. Lawmakers must put the onus on alleged tenants, rather than on the property owner, to prove that they belong in a given property. Florida governor Ron DeSantis intends to sign a bill that unanimously passed the state legislature, giving police the right to remove squatters immediately. The bill also allows prosecutors to charge intruders with a felony if they cause more than $1,000 of property damage—a reaction to an incident in which trespassers caused more than $40,000 in damages to a woman’s rental property. A proposed Georgia law would empower local police to treat squatting as a criminal offense rather than a civil action requiring the property owner to go through housing court, and make it a crime for interlopers to present a fake lease. Similarly, a bill proposed in New York distinguishes squatters from legitimate tenants, defining them as trespassers whom police can remove.

We’ll likely see more such laws as social media continues to drive a squatting surge, especially as reports emerge of online forums advising illegal immigrants to squat to get housing. These posts work only because of gaping loopholes in many states’ property laws. Voters need to demand change.

Photo by Lori Van Buren/Albany Times Union via Getty Images 


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