Q&A of the Day – Reforming Florida’s Squatter Law

Q&A of the Day – Reforming Florida’s Squatter Law 

Each day I feature a listener question sent by one of these methods.   

Email: brianmudd@iheartmedia.com  

Social: @brianmuddradio    

iHeartRadio: Use the Talkback feature – the microphone button on our station’s page in the iHeart app.    

Today’s Entry: @brianmuddradio how do we get our state to fix these squatter laws? 

Bottom Line: Today’s note is on the back of a recent Florida squatter story which was so egregious it made national news and highlighted a growing problem in Florida, and across the country, in the process. Organized squatting. Squatters aren’t a new problem in our state, those who lived through the housing crisis and Great Recession will remember extensive issues with vacant properties falling into disrepair and in many cases being commandeered, commonly by vagrants for a time. But as the housing market recovered, the problem abated and was rarely an issue over the past decade – however that wasn’t the case elsewhere.  

The first documented occupied squatting campaign popped up in Seattle in 2016. A group of anarchists, who were part of 2011’s Occupy Wall Street movement, used online forums to coordinate efforts to place (theoretically) homeless people in vacant buildings. The group’s forum asked people to “Fight homelessness. Post photos and addresses of vacant properties”. The effort gained so much momentum that the group managed to not only occupy countless vacant houses, but even significant vacant commercial buildings across the city – including the Seattle Times building after the newspaper moved to a smaller location. They even began flying banners at occupied properties reading “Sweeps Make Squats & You Sweep, We Occupy”. This was the precursor to the even more verbose 2020 CHAZ, or Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, movement which seized areas of the Seattle during the peak of the pandemic. But what started in Seattle didn’t stay in Seattle and it’s become far more sophisticated over time as well.  

Over the past couple of years there’s been a growing problem across the country with commonly occupied-minded opportunists to identify and squat in vacant properties – taking advantage of local and state laws in the process. Some have been high profile such as in Chicago with one woman who has fought for over a year but still hasn’t been able to successfully remove a man who has squatted in a home she inherited from her deceased mother. The current squatter monitored obituaries, and took advantage of the death of the woman’s mother to occupy the home and claim he had a lease in place with her before she died. There’s no evidence of this being a legitimate claim, and the man hasn’t paid any rent to the daughter, however police won’t remove the squatter because the legal process is tied up in the courts. That example shows the extent to which certain squatters will now go to attempt to exploit opportunities they perceive within state and local laws. That takes us back to the Florida squatting story in the news. 

Two real-estate landlords who’d previously been renting out their property decided to sell a Jacksonville home. The listing, showing the property was currently unoccupied, posted on Zillow, was discovered by organized squatters who used the same tactic as the aforementioned Chicago squatter. They moved in, equipped with a pit bull for intimidation, which was discovered 48 hours after the listing when the first showing was to take place. When police were called the squatters claimed they had a lease agreement, which like the example from Chicago, triggered a legal battle. Under Florida law, in a property dispute like this one, it's incumbent on the property owner to file a lawsuit against the occupying party which calls on the occupants to respond to the court filing within 20 days with proof of their claim. When that didn’t happen the occupants were ordered out by the court, which led to their removal 34 days after having occupied the property. However, by then the property had sustained over $38,000 in damage. That’s in addition to the legal costs for hiring an attorney and filing the lawsuit and the loss of the use of the property. It was also discovered that the removed squatters had done something similar with a nearby property in February. This led to the owner saying this: I want Governor DeSantis to change the laws. Tenants are not the same as squatters. And therein lies. Florida’s current law doesn’t have language that’s specific to squatters – thus they’re treated as tenants with a standard eviction process needing to play out before removal. She also said this: There needs to be a far more expedited way that the court system can look at the situation and declare quickly within a couple of days whether or not that is a legitimate individual in that house who might have been defrauded by a sneaky landlord, or if in fact it's the landlord that is being defrauded by a squatter. As for what can be done?  

There’s currently a “Housing” proposal in the state legislature which would potentially address the issue, though as currently written, it could be argued that it could introduce new problems as well. Making it harder for landlords to evict tenants for delinquent payments, additionally the bill calls for rent control. It was authored by multiple democrats. Anyway – that's the play. There are just under two weeks left in the state legislative session. If you want to see something change, advocate for changes to your state senator and state representative to quickly introduce and pass legislation addressing these issues. In the meantime, those who have vacant properties beware as these aggressive tactics are increasingly being used.  

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