A string of squatters attempting to use an old law to legitimize taking over empty houses has inspired a new bill that aims to prevent copycats from following in their footsteps.
While some of the more high-profile squatting cases—like that of Kenneth Robinson, who made headlines last year for flaunting his "$16" Flower Mound house—have faded from the spotlight, their examples continue to linger.
"It's still going on in Denton County, we've heard about it in Houston. I get calls regularly from Alabama, Kentucky," said Tarrant County Constable Clint Burgess, who had to study up on the law of adverse possession when apparent squatters, including Robinson, began presenting him with obscure affidavits two years ago.
"We had never seen anything like it," Burgess said.
When filed under appropriate circumstances, an adverse possession affidavit can initiate a path toward legal ownership of neglected property—from a tract of unused farmland to a vacant lot. As the law stands now, after making the initial filing, a person must openly—as opposed to covertly—use and care for the land for several years without being challenged by the property’s actual owner before the title can change hands.
But as empty, foreclosed homes became more abundant throughout the country in the wake of the financial crisis, some savvy squatters attempted to use the law to justify moving in to unoccupied houses.
"People made the claim that the property is abandoned and therefore I can take it," Burgess said.
Tarrant County has managed to crack down on the practice by refusing to accept the affidavits at the county clerk’s office and prosecuting abusers. But Burgess encouraged State Sen. Jane Nelson, who represents Denton and Tarrant counties, to sponsor legislation that would prevent the scam from bleeding into other parts of the state.
Under the new law, filed last week, anyone interested in gaining ownership of an unused property would have to send written notice to the last known address of each person who holds an interest in it, from mortgage lenders to homeowners.
"This bill simply states what a reasonable person would expect—that property does not convey simply by squatting," Nelson wrote in a statement.
Legal experts say that, even as the law stands now, the chance of an adverse possession claim actually helping squatters gain ownership of an abandoned or foreclosed home, is nearly impossible.
"If somebody goes into a property and does not have the legal right to do it, that person may be a criminal trespasser," said Rick Zelman, managing partner of Sacher, Zelman, a law firm in Miami, where similar problems with adverse possession claims have spiked.
Criminal trespass concerns aside, a prospective new owner would still have to live openly in the targeted home for a fixed number of years without being challenged by neighbors, a bank or whoever abandoned the property for the process to proceed.
"It's not going to work," said Zelman. "You're not going to be there that long."
While a squatter may not stand a chance to legally acquire a home he entered illegally, the use of adverse possession affidavits has still slowed down what is typically a straightforward process—swiftly filing a charge or a warrant against the suspected squatter.
"It is, in my opinion, a device to use portions of the civil law to attempt to confuse either a court or sheriff from ultimately ejecting you off of a property," Zelman said.
That sort of confusion allowed some of the initial North Texas cases to remain in legal limbo for weeks, and in some cases months before authorities had the information they needed to evict a squatter.
Constable Burgess recalled the first case he encountered which involved a man who would move into a nurse's home during her frequent work-related trips out of town.
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"That's the one that set the whole thing off," Burgess said. "She'd be gone two, three months and a guy basically took this house. It took a lot of legal research, a lot of verification and we learned a lot about the mortgage system."
While the new legislation could thwart the abuse of adverse possession in Texas, it remains a problem in other areas of the country still recovering from the foreclosure crisis.
Confusion over Florida's adverse possession law recently enabled Andre Barbosa, a Brazilian national, to squat in a $2.5 million Palm Beach County home for more than a month before being evicted. When police responded to reports of a squatter, they walked away noting that he had presented them with adverse possession paperwork, the Sun Sentinel reported. Since no one saw Barbosa break into the home, it was considered a civil matter and the issue went unresolved for weeks before police gathered what information they needed to finally evict him.
Local officials said the problem went far beyond just one high-profile case.
"It's an incident that's becoming a lot more common in our area dealing with situations where we have a property owner who claims he gave no authority for individuals who have taken possession of their property," Commander Manuel Morals of the Miami Police Department told NBC Miami last week. "A common case of what we’ll call squatters."