Squatters bill aimed at empowering homeowners

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A quick internet search at the downtown public library easily yields a long list of potentially empty homes for a squatter to invade.

Houses for sale as well as rental and vacation properties can be easy targets, according to Alex Yoder, director of residential management at Dorman Real Estate Services.

“Anyone can just go online, look at vacant properties and then go kick the door in and claim it as theirs,” Yoder said. “As of now, the owner of the property, the property manager or whoever is serving as the landlord would then have to put a bunch of money and time forward just to get them out of there.”

A bill aimed at protecting homeowners’ rights against unwanted occupants will be considered by a Colorado House committee next week after receiving unanimous Senate approval in late January.    

Senate Bill 15 would permit law enforcement to remove squatters who are unable to provide documentation, such as a signed lease agreement for the property, without an eviction process.

The Protecting Homeowners and Deployed Military bill is sponsored by four Republican state lawmakers, including Sen. Bob Gardner, Sen. Owen Hill, Rep. Dave Williams and Rep. Larry Liston, all from Colorado Springs.

“Right now, there is an eviction process for squatters that can take upward of 60 days or more, and it doesn’t take but a week sometimes for someone to do some significant damage,” Liston said. “This piece of legislation greatly expedites the process of re-establishing ownership to the rightful owner.”

THE NEED

For homeowners, an uninvited guest or squatter is instantly considered a trespasser in their minds.

However, when it comes to the law, charging someone with trespassing, which is a misdemeanor or felony offense depending on circumstances, isn’t so simple, said Colorado Springs Police Lt. Howard Black.

“We are hopeful there will be some movement with legislation on this issue that would better allow us to hold individuals accountable who are actually doing takeovers over residences,” Black said.

In most instances, current law dictates situations involving squatters be handled similar to a landlord evicting a tenant who failed to pay their rent, he said.

Homeowners then face court costs between $300 to $500, Yoder said, adding there are several other costs associated such as hiring a locksmith and someone to remove any of the squatter’s personal belongings.

A few months ago, Town and Country Realty broker/owner Keith Klaehn was forced into an eviction process when squatters took over one of the company’s rental homes.

“It started out as just one or two but what seemed to happen, in this particular case, is word got out in the transient community,” Klaehn said. “Before you knew it, multiple folks were coming and going from the house.”

Liston also has heard of instances where squatters appeared to coordinate and stay together at a vacant property.

Some squatters understand they have at least 60 days before someone removes them, Liston said.

“They know the law, so they take full advantage of the eviction process,” he said.

While a lot of the time the squatters are homeless, that’s not always the case, both Black and Yoder said.

“We recently took on a property from a very sweet, elderly woman, who was trying to manage a home in southeast Colorado Springs on her own,” Yoder said. “A vendor that she hired to perform some repairs, to get the home rent-ready, decided on his own accord to move his family into the residence.”

After Yoder’s company took over management, it had to go through the standard landlord eviction process to remove the vendor, he said.

“A squatter who had no lease, and no agreement to live in the property, effectively stole the right of possession,” Black said. “The homeowner had to then pay for the costs associated with an eviction and had to lose even more rents during the squatters’ final days until the eviction was completed.”

The proposed bill would affect all homeowners while also offering service members additional protection, Liston said.

“It’s for everybody, but we certainly have a lot of deployed military here that are gone from anywhere from a month or two to a year,” he said.

LOCAL SUPPORT

Realtors are the advocates of homeowners and their rights, said Clarissa Arellano-Thomas, vice president of public policy and communications, Pikes Peak Association of Realtors.

“Homeowners just don’t gather and say we’re going to form an advocacy group and represent property and homeowners at city council, county [commission] or at the state level or even in D.C. — that’s what the Realtors do,” she said.

Squatters occupying properties is a serious problem for Colorado Springs homeowners, Arellano-Thomas said.

“That’s why the bill is so important to us as an industry,” she said. “That’s why we care about this, because squatting is actually a tremendous violation of private property rights.”

Yoder and Klaehn also voiced support for the legislation, reiterating if someone cannot prove they have a right to possession, property managers or homeowners should not endure the burden of an eviction process.

“If someone decides to move into any vacant home, to claim it as their own, without any legal right to occupy, we should be able to have them immediately removed for trespassing,” Yoder said. “I can’t imagine why any reasonable human would disagree with that.”

Liston recently was confronted by two neighbors interested in SB 15, he said.

Neither neighbor had been a victim but they were upset about the potential harm squatters may do if they did enter their property, Liston said.

“I have heard far and wide not only from my constituents but from other people that, ‘Hey, this is a problem,’” he said. “Whether it’s occurred to them or not, they certainly want the squatter eviction process expedited.”

UNKNOWN FATE

Beyond increased vigilance and working with neighbors, there isn’t much the real estate industry can do to keep their properties from being easy targets, Klaehn said.

“We still as an industry have to do our advertising,” he said. “Whether you have a sign in the yard or not, anyone with a phone can search for all the available rental properties in the area.”

The lack of ability to combat the problem is another reason real estate industry professionals say they are vested in the bill’s fate.

“The law needs to have those teeth and boundaries that basically say if there is no written contract that can be provided by the party or parties involved then they have no legal right to be there,” Yoder said. “There needs to be guidelines, parameters or something.”

Yoder, along with other area real estate professionals, plans to attend the bill’s upcoming hearing at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in the House’s State, Veterans, and Military Affairs committee.

“We have no interest in a bill that lets us kick people out arbitrarily,” Yoder said. “The reason we have interest in the bill is we don’t want our owners to be taken advantage of.”

Liston said the bill is about putting property owners and their rights first, which are sacred to the state’s economy, he said.

“It’s that versus people who don’t legally have the right to be on the property at all,” Liston said. “I’m getting very strong votes of support from friends, neighbors and constituents about this, far more so than other legislation that I have carried.”

Yet, the representative fears the bill’s fate may be grim as it was sent to what he called the Democrats’ “kill committee.”

“This is not a partisan issue,” Liston said. “This could affect people of any political persuasion, and it probably has. I really hope it’s not treated politically by my good friends in the Democratic Party.”

To track the bill’s status online, visit leg.colorado.gov.

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