Below is my column in USA Today on the growing “squatting” trend across the country. The crime has been raging in Europe for many years and it is now becoming something of an epidemic in the United States. It is not legally difficult to combat, but it has proven politically challenging in many cities. The result for homeowners has been a nightmare with little deterrence or assistance from government officials.
Here is the column:
In Texas, a homeowner says she was locked out of her house by a squatter who claimed to have a lease after moving to the state with her family (the woman previously had been evicted from three other homes).
In Maryland, a woman returned from vacation to find two squatters in her bed. They were not only living in her house but also had sold about $50,000 of her furniture.
It is a pattern being played out in many cities in the United States. It also is common in Europe, where squatting has become a political movement with support from the left.
Some squatters enter legally and then just stay. In Long Island, New York, Guramrit Hanspal, 52, has not paid his mortgage for 25 years. The mortgage was foreclosed, but the company that now owns the home has struggled for decades to evict Hanspal, who continues to change lawyers and file lawsuits to delay proceedings.
“I think (squatting is) a fairly big problem, and I think it’s pretty hard to avoid,” Jim Burling, vice president of legal affairs for the Pacific Legal Foundation, told Fox News.
In the case of Rabbi Meyer Leifer, 90, he simply gave Roselee Moskowitz, 67, a place to live when she found herself temporarily homeless during the pandemic. She then just stayed and refused to leave. Mosokowitz reportedly occupies the rabbi’s living room and sits on his couch watching his television.
Prosecutors and politicians play a critical role in these scams. Local authorities have done little to assist homeowners for a variety of reasons – from political calculations to negligence. Instead, they force landowners to go into overtaxed housing courts with notoriously slow dockets. It often takes months or years to get an eviction order.
The resulting lack of deterrence is evident in the brazen attitude of these criminals. A retiree friend of mine was away from her home in Sarasota, Florida, when a squatter moved in and refused to leave. The woman falsely claimed that she had a lease and trashed the home. Eventually, she was arrested but promptly released. She then returned and stole my friend’s car. The police said there was likely little that would happen to the squatter.
The people involved are committing crimes, from breaking and entering to fraud to forgery. Yet, they are rarely prosecuted.
Squatting is not a particularly difficult problem to solve. It simply requires police and prosecutors to enforce existing laws.
In a recent case in Houston, a teacher, Amberlyn Prather, reportedly squatted in a luxury home for months with her family. The property owner said she repeatedly changed the locks only to have the squatters gain entry by climbing on the roof and entering through upper windows. In this case, authorities have a person accused of forging a lease. That should not be difficult to prosecute.
Cities can speed process of reviewing property owners’ rights
Cities can create new legal avenues to address this crime. The key is to force action at the outset. Cities can set up rapid response teams with prosecutors making immediate judgments on lawful possession. They also can fast-track the cases to bring parties into court rapidly.
If a car owner called police to report that someone was sitting in their vehicle without permission, police would make a decision on the spot about ownership based on the registration and other documents. They would not allow the person to drive off and tell the owner to work it out in court.
And it is far less important to return the possession of a car than a home.
Yet, authorities in New York did little to help Marjorie Martin as she sought for three years to evict squatters. It didn’t matter that Christine Rock allegedly filed fraudulent paperwork with the forged signatures of Martin’s mom, father and sister – all of whom had been dead for more than a decade. Rock was accused of putting the utilities in her name and then ignoring the bills.
When Rock was finally arrested, the city hit Martin with a more than $25,000 water bill that was left unpaid by the squatter.
She is not alone. Owners are told that they must continue to pay taxes and other costs for their property, and squatters delay any final orders through failures to appear, changes of counsel and other practices. In the case of Lia Hatzakis, 29, a squatter offered to make up for not paying for the utilities he used by dating her while he lived in her home. She declined.
There is little evidence of legislative action in many cities. However, Democrats in Congress have moved to pass a federal housing law − to bar landlords from learning whether potential tenants have criminal records, which would include past squatter offenses.
The common nuisance of squatting reflects a breakdown in basic deterrence of our laws. Property offenses have been steadily downgraded as priorities in many cities, while prosecutions are viewed as politically risky for officials who do not want to be viewed as targeting people who are homeless.
Before these cases become a movement like the one in Europe, local and state authorities will have to act. Squatters defend their actions as proper when done according to their own standards. When a woman in England called her squatter to object to his conduct, “Michael” was insulted and left her a message stating, “Just so you know, I’m not doing anything wrong. I’ve done it the right way.”
Jonathan Turley is the J.B. & Maurice C. Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University Law School.