Texas takes aim at squatters

The Texas Senate held a hearing last week to draft new anti-squatter laws.

By David Martin Davies, Texas Public RadioMay 22, 2024 9:45 am, ,

From Texas Public Radio:

A squatter is a person who has illegally settled on someone else’s property. These people move in while the legitimate homeowner is away or while the house is vacant. It might appear that they are criminally trespassing or doing criminal mischief, but getting the police to remove the squatter is next to impossible. This week a Texas Senate committee heard testimony about the problem and the Senators are promising to pass a set of new laws that will crack down on squatters.

“What we’re here for quite simply is to come and take it back,” said Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston). He made it clear in his opening statement of the senate committee hearing that he was on the side of the property owners, and they had no sympathy or tolerance for squatters.

“Because that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to get legislation put together that will come take these properties back from squatters who have no legal or moral ownership, or any other investment in a property,” said Bettencourt.

Bettencourt then introduced a montage of local television news stories—horror stories about the squatter problem.

Each story followed a pattern. A law-abiding taxpaying homeowner is victimized by someone moving into their property. And they won’t leave even after the police are called.

And this was also the story of the hearing’s star witness: Terri Boyette, a Mesquite resident who lost her home due to damage caused by a squatter,

“As of today, 11 months later, I still don’t live in my house and can’t access it because of the damage that was done. It actually took seven months from the date that I hired an attorney to get back into being able to evict because of the time it took to get a court date, and he was given an additional 30 days to appeal because it was the holidays, and the judge didn’t want him to be homeless. Even though I was homeless during this entire time, I paid utilities, property taxes, and for water and homeowners insurance as well as my mortgage to try and save my home because it was considered tenant harassment, even though this person had never been a tenant and had broken into my home, In addition, I continued to maintain the home on the outside by doing maintenance and landscaping because Mesquite would find me if my grass got too long.” she said.

Boyette told the committee she had lived in her home for over two years but needed to spend several weeks in Florida on family matters. That’s when the squatter moved in. That was last June, and she is still unable to move back into her home.

“I discovered he was there on June 19th. I called the police and they said, how long has he been there? And I said, I’ve been gone about two weeks. And they said, well, this is a civil matter. You’ll have to go to court in the time. From the time he got the notice, the first notice to the court date, he used that time to sell my appliances, my furniture, large items. He left the water running when he ripped out the fridge and the washer and dryer. So I have water and mold damage in my house now and then when he got the additional 30 days, he held a yard sale and got rid of all my personal items. Anything that wasn’t sold is completely covered in filth and mold,” she told the committee.

Boyette said following the legal process to remove the squatter is not only slow but is out of balance—favoring rights of the squatter over the rights of the property owner.

“He allowed other people to come into the house and use it as a drug den. So they’ve detected fentanyl, they’ve detected heroin. There are needles throughout the clothes and all the garbage that you see throughout there. There’s molded and dirty food, all because I couldn’t do anything to date. He’s out walking on the street and I’m $150,000 in debt to replace everything in my home and repair it,” Boyette said.

She told the committee that the police say squatter situations are civil matters and not criminal so there is nothing they can do. Senator Royce West (D- Dallas) had a difficult time rectifying the inaction of law enforcement.

“When I contacted a detective and he said, I don’t know that there’s been a crime committed, and I said, I need you to explain to me how a man can break into my home. Absolutely destroy it, ruin me financially, and there has been no crime. No crime. It’s absurd,” she said.

“It makes no sense at all. I’m starting to get kind of outrageous about that, and I want to know from the Mesquite police department what they don’t understand about the statute concerning burglary of habitation in the state of Texas,” said West.

Boyette said as a homeowner she was on her own to try to figure out how to regain her property. But the squatters have plenty of free legal help and other public resources to help them evade the law.

“When you go to court, clerk of the court stands up and says, here’s all these free resources for tenants and people in the house, and we’re going to have somebody waiting outside to help you. I, as a homeowner, nothing I navigating, what do I do with the police? How do I get into court doing the eviction, dealing with insurance, which has been unbelievably stressful, and I have no idea what’s coming, no idea what’s going to happen, and I have nobody to answer or kind of say, Hey, this is what you need to expect. This is what’s going to happen. But as a homeowner, nobody helps you. Nobody tells you what to expect. Nobody gives you any guidance, but yet, if you’re living in my house illegally, here’s free help,” she said.

Yudith Matthews and Abram Mendez, a San Antonio married couple testified that their squatter received a letter from the City of San Antonio with instructions and resources.

I just want to share with you our frightening experience. We never imagined that someone could take away from us a right to private property. It even seemed unrealistic when the squatter got more protection help and benefits than us, said Matthews.

The couple testified that they felt threatened by law enforcement during the process. When they turned off the water and electricity to the home they were ordered to turn the utilities back on or else they would be jailed.

“The lawful homeowners and taxpayers… squatters know what they’re doing. They know how to take advantage of obsolete laws. They move in, they get free rent. In our case, he was living in a property for free for over three months, even though we were lucky because we were able to get him out sooner than any other homeowners who spend seven months to a year. If a homeowner is out of desperation and tries to remove the squatter on their own, the homeowner gets arrested while the squatter is protected by the police and the laws,” said Matthews.

The committee is looking to draft new laws for passage in the 2025 legislative session—earlier if Governor Greg Abbott calls a special session. The lawmakers said they will criminalize squatting, streamline the removal of squatters and “strengthen the rights of property owners.”

The legislators admitted they will need to craft protections for property owners don’t overshadow protections for legal tenants.

Bettencourt said that more hearings will be held on the issue – and he will be looking for answers why Texas cities like San Antonio won’t enforce the laws already on the book.

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