Protecting Property Rights from Squatters

Sam Karnick Heartland Institute
Published May 13, 2024

The rising problem of squatters illegally occupying people’s homes has become so obvious that even the mainstream media have recently been paying some attention to it, and lawmakers are beginning to take action.

A survey by the National Rental Home Council found 1,200 homes in Atlanta alone have been taken over by squatters, News Channel 8 in Atlanta reports. Georgia enacted a law in late April to speed up evictions of squatters. “We will be watching this develop over the next year,” Atlanta’s Fox 5 TV channel stated.

NBC Nightly News ran a national story on property owners’ difficulties in getting governments to cooperate in removing squatters. Local New York City TV stations and newspapers extensively covered the story of a Queens homeowner who was arrested for changing the locks on her house to keep squatters out. A local Los Angeles TV station took viewers “inside a multi-million-dollar mansion that residents say was being used by squatters.”

NBC News reported on the arrest of two New York City teens after the dead body of the apartment owner’s daughter was found in a duffel bag in the space they were illegally occupying (after the woman who was killed went there to check on the property; obviously not a coincidence). Newsweek reported on a Georgia squatter demanding $190,000 in damages from a property owner who tried to have him evicted.

Newsweek also reported on a Bellevue, Washington landlord who has been blocked from entering his home for the past two years because the state granted a squatter a Temporary Protection Order against the homeowner.

As these and numerous other incidents show, governments have been complicit in these massive property thefts. The New York Post led the way in exposing this problem with its laudable coverage of the NYC squatter story highlighting the fact that local governments often favor people illegally occupying houses over the property owners, plus its report on a Tik Tokker from Venezuela “with a 500,000 strong online following” who “is offering his comrades tips on how to ‘invade’ unoccupied homes and invoke squatters’ rights in the United States,” in a clip that has drawn more than 3.9 million views. Other outlets picked up both stories.

Some lawmakers are beginning to respond. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation in March that increases penalties for squatting, authorizes police to remove squatters immediately, sets criminal penalties for presenting a fake deed or lease, prohibits the unauthorized sale or renting of residential properties, and makes it a felony to cause $1,000 or more in damages to those properties. House Bill 621, aptly named simply “Property Rights,” passed unanimously in both houses of the state legislature.

“If you are the victim of squatting, you can simply fill out a form, give it to your local sheriff, and the sheriff is instructed to go and remove the people who are inhabiting your dwelling illegally,” DeSantis told the press upon signing the bill into law.

Attention to property rights and governments’ perverse protection of home invaders is long overdue. The notion that people can enter your property and take it over, and the government would then actively prevent you from evicting them, defies common sense and constitutes a direct, government-sponsored assault on property rights.

Squatters often take advantage of state and local “adverse possession” laws, “which permit a person to take ownership of something, most commonly a piece of real estate, that they do not officially own by possessing or living in it for a set amount of time, or ‘squatting’ in it,” Newsweek notes.

These laws were supposedly intended to prevent property owners from evicting renters without due cause, a valid concern. However, government favoritism for occupants over owners intensified greatly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since then, the laws and their enforcement processes have thoroughly degenerated into the idea of “squatters’ rights,” with property rights being transferred, for all practical purposes, from the legal owners to increasingly brazen invaders.

This undermining of property rights has a national parallel in President Joe Biden’s deliberate neglect of the nation’s border and unleashing of a massive invasion of illegally resident aliens. It also bears similarities to state and local governments’ rampant ignoring of crimes by “peaceful protestors” who killed people and destroyed billions of dollars in property in 2020 and after with impunity, as well as the recent land and facility takeovers by anti-Israel demonstrators on college campuses.

All levels of government in the United States have been increasingly lax in their protection of property rights, and many have openly incited criminal activity in this regard — except in the case of protestors against abortion, anti-American indoctrination of children in schools, the 2020 election processes, and other such politically protected positions.

The American Dream has always centered on owning property and building a life for oneself in a home that serves as a refuge from the troubles of the world. Governments have a duty to protect our right to do that. Designating thieves as “tenants” and arresting homeowners for trying to take their houses back is outrageous and un-American.

This phenomenon exemplifies a corruption of the very foundations of the American system, and as such it will be exceedingly difficult to reverse. It is ultimately up to the people themselves to rid their governments of those who fail to protect their rights.

That right, too, is something that is increasingly under attack. The people will have only themselves to blame if they lose it — and will lose everything else as well.

Photo by Myrtle Beach The Digitel. Attribution 2.0 Generic