Homeowners across the country tormented by squatters find themselves tied up in lengthy and expensive legal battles to get control of their properties back – and one expert warns many others can find themselves victims.
Real estate lawyer Jim Burling told Fox News Digital that any home unoccupied for a stretch can be a target of squatters.
“I think it’s a fairly big problem and I think it’s pretty hard to avoid,” said Burling, who is vice president of litigation for Pacific Legal Foundation. Burling said squatters took over a neighbor’s home after the owner died and eventually had to be removed by police.
Cases like that are common. In the last few months, Chicago squatters have taken over the homes of two residents in the same neighborhood after the elderly homeowners died and left the homes to family members.
Darthula Young said this week that her deceased mother’s property in the Chatham neighborhood of Chicago was taken over by a man she described as a “professional squatter” with a long criminal record who changed the locks and has racked up a $1,300 water bill that she is on the hook for.
Karen Polk also lost her mother recently and realized while she was prepping the property to sell that a family had moved in, claiming that they had signed a lease and paid rent up front to another person that Polk did not know.
Both Young and Polk first discovered the squatters in September and both of them are still tied up in the court process, which can take six months or longer – and that’s only if the alleged squatters show up to court.
In both cases, the hands of the police were reportedly tied since they are unable to definitively determine who is telling the truth and whose paperwork is legitimate, which is a job for the court system.
“If somebody is living in a home and saying ‘hey, I signed a lease, I’m paying rent, I have a right to be here,’ whether or not that’s true the police hear that story then they hear a story of somebody who’s not living there and saying ‘this is my place these people don’t belong here,’ the police officer can’t make that legal determination,” Burling said.
“It’s not their job. That’s not their bailiwick. If you have that kind of dispute it has to go to court.”
Burling told Fox News Digital that in some cases, organized criminal groups scour title records for properties that are vacant because of foreclosures and deaths.
Squatting has also been an issue in the Pacific Northwest in places like Oregon and Seattle where the homeless crisis has resulted in encampments on abandoned properties that sometimes result in disastrous consequences for next-door neighbors.
Jacob Adams told Fox 12 Oregon last month that squatters at a property next to him have been setting fires that have spread to his property, igniting propane tanks and leaving his wife “screaming.” The family is now reconsidering whether to stay in Portland, he said.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve talked to police, because people are screaming, or someone is overdosing,” Adams said. “It’s just countless, countless first responders’ calls. We all have to love our neighbor no matter who they are. But at the point when they start setting your place on fire it becomes a little more difficult.”
The coronavirus pandemic and eviction moratoriums associated with that have also contributed to squatting cases across the country, including a situation in Washington state where Laleh Kashani said she’s been trying to remove squatters running a stolen-vehicle-trafficking operation on her property since 2020.
A SWAT team was finally able to clear the property last month and recovered drugs, firearms and stolen cars but Kashani claimed that the squatters have since returned and broke the locks that she had changed.
“I literally cry,” Kashani told Kiro 7 News. “I’m going to give up, I’m going to lose my house. Whatever we owe on it, let the bank take it.”
In California, landlords have been publicly fuming over the coronavirus-inspired eviction moratorium where tenants have essentially become squatters who legally can’t be removed from properties despite owing over $100,000 in rent in some cases.
In addition to the cases of typical squatting, Americans across the country have also fallen victim to a law known as “adverse possession” where a court will grant property ownership to someone who has openly lived there for a long period of time ranging from five to 20 years, depending on the state.
That’s what happened to Burton Banks in 2021 when he tried to sell a parcel of land in Delaware given to him by his late father when he died but learned that his neighbor, Melissa Schrock, had erected a goat pen on part of the property and had been using roughly two-thirds of an acre of the property.
Banks, who lives in Atlanta, took Schrock to court and a judge ruled against him citing adverse possession law while determining that Schrock had been using the property for the 20-year threshold and the $125,000 parcel of land was no longer his.
Banks told Fox News Digital that he had been paying taxes on the property during that time and that he believed Schrock only had the goat pen up for three years but with the original property owners deceased it became a “he said she said.” Schrock’s claim that the property has “always been my backyard since i was a kid” won out, according to Banks.
“It’s crazy,” Banks told Fox News Digital, adding that he has received encouragement from people since his story went public who said they are “upset” about his situation and it “doesn’t seem fair.”
Burling told Fox News Digital that those most susceptible to squatters are those leaving properties vacant due to a death in the family or a foreclosure and there isn’t much that can be done to prevent squatting other than remaining vigilant and keeping properties tightly secured.
“If I were a homeowner, I would be really careful about letting my property be vacant for any period of time,” Burling said. “I would be very careful about renting it out.”
“The courts are backed up, the civil process takes forever, the squatters won’t show up to court and so it just drags on and in the meantime somebody’s living rent-free for a significant period of time.”