Texas targets squatters

From Texas Public Radio:

A squatter is a person who has illegally settled on someone else’s property. These people move in while the rightful owner is away or while the house is empty. It may seem like they are trespassing or committing criminal offenses, but getting the police to remove the squatter is almost impossible. This week, a Texas Senate committee heard testimony about the problem, and senators are promising to pass a series of new laws that will crack down on squatters.

“We’re here to just come and take it down,” said Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston). He made it clear in his opening speech to the Senate committee hearing that he was on the side of the property owners and that they had no sympathy or tolerance for squatters.

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

Bettencourt then presented a montage of local television news: horror stories about the squatter problem.

Each story followed a pattern. A property owner who pays taxes and abides by the law is a victim of someone moving in on his property. And they won’t leave even after they call the police.

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,

“To this day, 11 months later, I still do not live in my house and I cannot access it due to the damage that occurred. It was actually seven months from the date I hired a lawyer to be able to evict again because of the time it took to get a hearing date, and they gave me an extra 30 days to appeal because it was a holiday, and the judge didn’t want me to. will be left homeless. Even though I was homeless all this time, I paid my utilities, property and water taxes and homeowners insurance, as well as my mortgage to try to save my house because it was considered tenant harassment, even though that this person had never been a tenant. and had broken into my house. Plus, I continued to keep the house on the outside doing maintenance and landscaping because Mesquite would find me if my grass grew too long.” she said.

Boyette told the committee that he had lived at home for more than two years but needed to spend several weeks in Florida for family matters. That’s when she moved into the squat. That was last June and she still can’t return to her house.

“I found out it was there on June 19. I called the police and they said: how long has he been there? And I said, I’ve been gone for two weeks now. And they said, well, this is a civil matter. You will have to go to court in due course. From the time he received the notice, the first notice until the court date, he used that time to sell my appliances, my furniture and large items. He left the water running when he started the refrigerator, washer and dryer. So I get water damage and mold in my house from time to time and then when he got the extra 30 days he had a garage sale and got rid of all my personal items. Everything that was not sold is completely covered in dirt and mold,” he told the committee.

Boyette said following the legal process to remove the squatter is not only slow but unbalanced: It favors the 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 detected fentanyl, they detected heroin. There are needles all over the clothes and all the trash you see around there. There is moldy and dirty food, all because I couldn’t do anything to date. He’s walking down the street and I’m $150,000 in debt to replace everything in my house and repair it,” Boyette said.

He told the committee that police say squatting situations are civil matters and not criminal matters, so there is nothing they can do. Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) struggled to rectify law enforcement’s inaction.

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

“It doesn’t make any sense at all. I’m starting to get a little loud about that, and I want the Mesquite Police Department to tell me what they don’t understand about the residential burglary statute in the state of Texas,” West said.

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

“When you go to court, the court clerk stands up and says, here are all these free resources for the tenants and the people in the house, and we’re going to have someone waiting outside to help you. As a homeowner, I don’t browse anything, what do I do with the police? How do I get to court to do the eviction, deal with insurance, which has been incredibly stressful, and I have no idea what’s coming, I have no idea what’s going to happen, and I have no one to answer to or say: Hey, this is what you need to expect. This is what’s going to happen. But as a homeowner, no one helps you. Nobody tells you what to expect. Nobody gives you any guidance, but still, if you live in my house illegally, here is free help,” he said.

Yudith Matthews and Abram Mendez, a San Antonio 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 terrifying experience. We never imagined that someone could take away our right to private property. It even seemed unrealistic that the squatter would get more help and protection benefits than us, Matthews said.

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

“The legal owners and taxpayers…the squatters know what they are doing. They know how to take advantage of obsolete laws. They move in and get free rent. In our case, he was living in a free property for over three months, although we were lucky in that we were able to get him out sooner than any other landlord who spent between seven months and a year. If a homeowner is desperate and tries to evict the squatter at his expense, the homeowner is arrested while the squatter is protected by the police and laws,” Matthews said.

The committee is looking to draft new laws for passage in the 2025 legislative session, sooner if Gov. Greg Abbott calls a special session. Lawmakers said they will criminalize squatting, expedite the removal of illegal occupants and “strengthen the rights of property owners.”

Lawmakers acknowledged that they will need to design protections for landlords that do not overshadow protections for legal renters.

Bettencourt said more hearings will be held on the issue and he will seek answers to why Texas cities like San Antonio do not enforce laws already in the book.