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Landlords on high alert over squatter schemes

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LA Post: Landlords on high alert over squatter schemes
March 25, 2024
Natasha Dixon - LA Post

Across the United States, a growing number of online forums and groups are providing detailed instructions for illegally occupying vacant homes through a practice known as squatting. With rent prices soaring and a shortage of affordable housing options, these "how-to" guides empower thousands to take desperate measures and move into properties they do not own or rent.

While squatting laws differ from state to state, the general premise revolves around "adverse possession" - a legal concept allowing a settler to claim ownership of an abandoned property after residing there openly for a specified period, often several years. However, many are circumventing the lengthy process by employing deceptive tactics to gain initial entry before attempting to establish residency rights.

One popular technique discussed extensively online involves placing "for rent" or "for sale" signs on vacant homes with an attached number for a burner phone. If no response is received after a designated waiting period, squatters take it as a sign the property is unoccupied and an ideal target for an illegal takeover. Other methods include monitoring real estate listings for homes lingering on the market without activity and surveilling the premises in person to detect any signs of occupation.

While mansions with amenities like pools and tennis courts hold superficial appeal, experienced squatters generally avoid such high-profile properties due to the increased likelihood of detection and intervention from authorities or the media. Many set a rough value limit of $500,000 when selecting potential targets, focusing on more modest residential properties far removed from watchful neighbors.

Upon identifying a suitable home, squatters face a delicate balance of concealing their unlawful presence while also mitigating suspicion from community members who may report any peculiar activity. Some advise maintaining a hermit-like existence by avoiding any engagement with locals, while others suggest blending in by acting like a legitimate resident or tenant.

In cases where neighbor interaction is unavoidable, squatters often attempt to win over residents by being disarmingly friendly and keeping the property well-maintained. The thinking is that if a blighted home shows signs of improvement, some locals may turn a blind eye in hopes of raising neighborhood property values, even if squatting is suspected.

Obtaining basic utilities like electricity and running water presents another obstacle for unlawful occupants. While some squatters manage to have services activated through the submission of fraudulent rental agreements, others choose to reside off-the-grid, repurposing bathrooms into primitive compost toilets and forgoing electrical power.

The ethics of depriving legal owners and landlords of their property is a contentious topic within the squatting community itself. While some assert that corporate real estate investors who let properties sit vacant for extended periods are fair game, others condemn those who intrude upon homes owned by more vulnerable parties like the elderly or working class, supplementing limited incomes through rental units.

Regardless of moral stances, the prevalence of these underground squatting tutorials speaks to the severity of America's housing crisis and the desperation driving many to explore whatever means necessary to keep a roof over their heads, even if those means are unlawful. As one anonymous squatter bluntly stated, "People are going to do what they have to do. You can't stop it."

The recent influx of migrants entering the U.S. is expected to further strain the housing market and potentially fuel a rise in home takeovers by those unable to secure affordable shelter through traditional rental markets. While legal consequences exist for trespassing and unlawful possession of property, the sheer volume of already overstretched law enforcement resources makes it difficult to effectively combat the squatting phenomenon.

As housing insecurity worsens nationwide, this illicit squatter movement aided by online infrastructure points to a far-reaching societal issue in dire need of comprehensive solutions. Until those broader solutions to affordable housing shortages arrive, many feel they have no choice but to illegally occupy and reside in whatever vacant properties they can, seeking any form of shelter and temporary security, even if it comes at the expense of trespassing on the homes of others.

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