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Private property at risk: Squatting crisis takes hold in the US

Criminal law attorney Jorge Silva told Voz Media that there is an increasing number of cases involving tenants who stop paying rent or people who occupy empty houses. Landlords have "limited options" to evict them.

Filip Szyller

Letrero propiedad privada (Pexels)

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a new law to protect homeowners from the home invasion crisis.

Recently, the state legislature unanimously passed House Bill 621, which will allow the police to evict squatters (those who do not have a rental contract) immediately, and in addition, they will face criminal sanctions (previously owners had to go through a long judicial process to be able to evict them). According to the text of the law:

Authorizes property owners or their authorized agents to request assistance from the sheriff from where the property is located for the immediate removal of unauthorized occupants from a residential dwelling under certain conditions; requires such owners or agents to submit a specified completed and verified complaint; specifying requirements for the complaint; authorizing a sheriff to arrest an authorized occupant for legal cause; (...) prohibiting unlawful detaining, or occupying or knowing and willfully presents a false document purporting to be a valid lease agreement, deed or other instruments conveying real property rights; prohibiting listing or advertising for sale, or renting or leasing, residential real property under certain circumstances. 

PDF by Veronica Silveri on Scribd

Squatting in Washington

The measures taken in Florida are designed to protect owners from the growing cases of squatting that have been reported around the country in recent months. One judge in Washington ruled in favor of a squatter by granting him a restraining order against his landlord after the landlord organized a protest in front of the rented house to draw attention to the situation (the tenant does not want to pay the rent or leave the house).

After months of not paying and a failed attempt at mediation through local authorities, the owner's attorney filed an order demanding the eviction of the squatter. This turned out to be unsuccessful. This case is just one of many that have arisen in recent months.

A homeowner was arrested in another case in New York

The Washington case is not the only one that has raised concern recently. A video recently went viral on social media - all recorded by ABC7 cameras - showing the dispute between the owner Adele Andaloro and some squatters who occupied one of her inherited homes (valued at $1 million).

The homeowner was arrested by the police after trying to evict the invaders. They occupied the house after Andaloro's parents passed away. They changed the locks and claimed that they were doing maintenance on the house. They have invoices from the workers. However, they don't have any type of contract that defines them as tenants.

New York law prevents Andaloro from quickly recovering her home. She cannot evict the invaders without going through the courts. According to the law, any person who can prove that they have been staying in a home for at least 30 days, with their personal belongings, can be declared a tenant.

Owners' options "are limited"

The cases of squatting in Washington and New York demonstrate how the squatting crisis is growing. Jorge Silva, a lawyer specializing in criminal law, warned Voz Media how concerning this issue is for society. He said that judges and legislators are subjected to a great deal of political manipulation. They are pressured to not leave a person homeless.

Likewise, he stated that every owner should be concerned, since if the tenant decides not to pay the rent, the options the owner has to be able to claim what they are owed or evict the tenant are limited.

To prevent this type of situation from happening, Silva recommended securing the homes with locks and alarms if they are unoccupied or charging enough months' rent in advance if renting.

Venezuelan TikToker explains how to invade empty houses

The squatting crisis is also gaining public attention. A Venezuelan TikTok influencer named Leonel Moreno - who has more than 500,000 followers - went viral for sharing a video explaining to illegal immigrants how to invade empty houses and how they can take advantage of the laws to stay there:

It is the only way we have to not live on the streets and not be a public charge (...) I discovered that there is a law that says that if a house is not inhabited we can confiscate it (...) that will be my next business, invade abandoned houses (...) My African friends have told me that they have already taken over about seven houses (...) You have to look for progress, and progress right now is invading a house.

The Venezuelan immigrant was harshly criticized on social media. According to the laws, a person who rents a home and who stays there without paying or who enters a house that is not their property and lives there is called and considered an intruder. This is perceived as a crime regardless of the condition of the property and the prosecutor's office can initiate eviction proceedings. However, these laws are countered by state regulations that allow squatters to remain in the home for various reasons.

It is not only in the US. Europe is also fighting against so-called 'squatters'

In Europe, invading private property - called occupation - is a crisis that countries have been fighting for several years. To control it, some countries have implemented measures that allow owners to act hand in hand with law enforcement to evict squatters in a short period of time.

An article from Economista.es shares information from lawyer Xavi Abat who describes how countries are working to solve this problem. In some, squatters can be evicted from private residences in just 24 hours, while in others you have to wait almost two years:

- Spain: This country has the strongest protections in place for squatters. After a long judicial process, the average period to evict a 'squatter' is 20 and a half months.

- Germany: Homeowners must file a police report and squatters can be evicted in just 24 hours. Occupation is considered a "crime" that carries prison sentences of up to one year (in addition, invaders can be fined).

- France: With a police report, the eviction is carried out in less than 48 hours. Trespassing is considered a crime that can carry a maximum penalty of three years in prison and a fine of around $48,000.

- United Kingdom: In order to evict a person suspected of squatting, police are simply allowed to enter the home (no judicial authorization is required). In addition, the squatter can be sentenced to a maximum of 51 weeks in prison and up to $6,000 in fines.

- Italy: Homeowners first have to file a police report before a quick trial is held to evict the squatter. Occupation carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison and fines of between $120 and $1,100 (This may be higher if the squatter uses violence).