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Texas legislators want to help property owners deal with squatters. How this could affect tenants

Terri Boyette, a homeowner in Mesquite, poses for a photo after testifying on squatting before the Senate Committee on Local Government on Wednesday, May 15, 2024 in Austin.
Maria Crane
The Texas Tribune
Terri Boyette, a homeowner in Mesquite, poses for a photo after testifying on squatting before the Senate Committee on Local Government on Wednesday, May 15, 2024 in Austin.

During a hearing at the Texas Capitol earlier this month, property owners shared the horror stories they’ve experienced with people who refused to leave their properties.

Terri Boyette said she left her home in Dallas for a few weeks last year to deal with a family issue in Florida and came back to find that someone had broken into her house and stayed there. She filed for eviction and tried to follow the legal process on her own to save money but ended up hiring a lawyer because it became too taxing. It took her seven months to regain control over her home. The house was damaged and she’s still trying to get her insurance company to pay for the repairs.

A couple from San Antonio, Abram Mendez and Yudith Matthews, said a contractor who was supposed to remodel their house stayed there and refused to leave. Even though the couple said they could prove they owned the property, the man lived at the house for more than three months.

Texas senators called the May 15 hearing to review state laws related to squatters, or people who illegally occupy a property. They said the law should help property owners kick out unwanted occupants more easily.

It’s unclear how widespread the problem is. Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, showed a mix of news reports on similar cases at the beginning of the hearing and said “the magnitude of it is shocking” but acknowledged there isn’t any official state data. Stuart Campbell, a lawyer with the Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center, said “it is not a big scale problem at all” and questioned whether the issue should be a priority for legislators.

“It’s extremely rare,” he said, and added that cases like these have gained attention recently after going viral on social media.

State Sens. Angela Paxton, R- McKinney, Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, and Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, listen to testimony about laws relating to squatters during the Texas Senate Committee on Local Government on Wednesday, May 15, 2024 in Austin.
Maria Crane
The Texas Tribune
State Sens. Angela Paxton, R- McKinney, Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, and Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, listen to testimony about laws relating to squatters during the Texas Senate Committee on Local Government on Wednesday, May 15, 2024 in Austin.

While lawmakers didn’t say what proposals they might pursue during next year’s legislative session to address the issue, laws that were recently passed in states like Florida or Georgia were mentioned as potential models. Housing experts say such changes could end up weakening tenants’ rights at a time when evictions have been climbing above pre-pandemic levels.

Here’s what you need to know about Texas laws regarding squatters, the recourses available for property owners and occupants, and what changes lawmakers might pursue next year.

Who is a squatter?

Texas laws don’t have a specific definition of who is considered a squatter, said Stuart Campbell, a lawyer with the Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center.

Rusty Adams, a research attorney at the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University, described a squatter during the hearing as, “Someone who settles on property without any legal claim or title.”

What happens when there’s a dispute over the ownership or occupancy of a property?

Property owners have to file for eviction when they want to remove someone from their property.

Adams said law enforcement may remove a trespasser, but if the person claims to have a right to be there — like claiming to have ownership of the property or a valid rent agreement — they have to stop the process until a court can confirm it.

When can an occupant claim ownership over a property?

While people who illegally enter a house don’t have specific rights in Texas, Adams explained some people who have lived in a place for years may be able to claim ownership of the property through a process called “adverse possession.”

People can make an adverse possession claim in the following circumstances:

  • If they have at least some documents to support their ownership claim and have lived at that property for at least three consecutive years.
  • If they don’t have any documents, they can still make a claim if they have paid taxes on the property and lived there for at least five consecutive years.
  • If they don’t have any documents or have paid any taxes, they can make a claim if they have cultivated or made improvements on the land, the property is no bigger than 160 acres and they have lived there for at least 10 consecutive years.

During the hearing, Bettencourt and Adams said changing the rules for adverse possession claims was not their focus, since these laws are not meant to protect trespassers.

What happens after an eviction is filed?

Texas laws require landlords to notify renters three days before filing for eviction. The case then must go to court between 10 and 21 days after the petition is filed and at least six days after the citation was served.

When property owners claim there was a forcible entry, owners can file for eviction immediately after giving the occupant an oral or written notice to vacate. The process would go through a similar timeline as with a tenant eviction before reaching the trial phase. It could take longer depending on the court’s waiting list, or if the occupant requests a jury or seeks legal counsel. If the court sides with the property owner, the occupant has six days to vacate the property and to decide whether they want to appeal, which would extend the legal process.

Adams said eviction laws fall short when property owners are dealing with trespassers.

When property owners are facing an occupant who doesn't want to leave, they have to prove to the court they own that place. Even if they do, the eviction process can still face other delays. An occupant could falsely claim to be a tenant, or they could have acted in good faith if they unknowingly signed a fraudulent lease with a fake landlord.

“The eviction laws, as they are written, are designed for getting tenants out of property. I know we have some people who are purported tenants, and we may have some way to deal with that. But [when dealing with] a pure trespasser these laws are not working because they put the burden on the property owner to show that this person doesn’t have to be there,” Adams said.

What changes do state lawmakers want to make?

The Senate Committee on Local Government called for the May 15 hearing to review existing laws, expedite the process for removing squatters and strengthen the rights of property owners.

“I don't know what theory of leftist-progressive-socialist reality started this, but it is going to end when this bill is passed in Texas,” Bettencourt said.

However, lawmakers didn’t propose any specific changes during the hearing. Some solutions proposed by attorneys who testified were to create new guidance to help law enforcement officers when dealing with trespassers, as well as new standards to determine whether a person has a right to be on a property and remove them if they don’t. They also suggested expediting the eviction process in certain cases, creating criminal penalties for trespassers and helping property owners recoup any financial losses.

New laws passed in Florida and Georgia this year were mentioned as possible models.

In Florida, a property owner now only needs to provide a statement saying an occupant is not authorized to be there and proof of ownership for an eviction to move forward. Doing so will allow law enforcement to vacate any occupants immediately. The occupant may file a civil suit after that and, if they show they were wrongfully removed, they may regain access to the property and recover costs and damages involved with the eviction.

Georgia created a new timeline for occupants to show they have a right to be on a property. They now have three business days after receiving a citation to present proof like a lease or rental agreement. If they do, the case must go before a court within a week.

The law also created nonjury trials for evictions and added monetary relief to make up for any losses property owners might incur.

How could changes impact Texas tenants?

According to Texas Housers, while federal and state protections were able to temporarily halt the rising tide of evictions during the height of the pandemic, the end of those protections led to a rise in eviction rates in 2022 and 2023. Eviction numbers are now higher than they were before the pandemic.

The legal rights and protections conferred to tenants in Texas during eviction proceedings are limited compared to other states, according to a report of the Keep Harris Housed Coalition.

“Beyond the formal legal process, tenant households experience evictions regularly through a myriad of landlord intimidation tactics,” the report said. “It is illegal to cut off utilities, restrict entry with a padlock, or change door locks and deny a tenant re-entry into their unit, but landlords frequently use these tactics to encourage the tenant to leave the property without a court order or force tenants to go into debt to gain entry into their home.”

Making changes in eviction Texans laws could further limit tenant rights, Campbell said. Changing the time or manner in which a landlord must give notice to an occupant before evicting them could result in treating tenants and trespassers the same way.

“Evictions traumatize children, impoverish families, and diminish their ability to gain secure, stable housing in the future — and they happen disproportionately to Black, Latinx, and immigrant communities,” Texas Housers says.

The organization has advocated for offering tenants more access to legal counsel, which it says is a proven, cost-effective and essential resource for tenants facing eviction. Across the country, 83% of landlords have attorneys but only 4% of tenants do, according to the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.

Copyright 2024 KERA

Martín Slipczuk | The Texas Tribune