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The Dubious Claim That We Have a Squatting Crisis

The numbers don’t seem to support the need for new state laws cracking down on illegal occupancy. There are better things policymakers could do to deal with the larger issues around housing.

Private property sign
Some governors and state legislators have been taking victory laps after approving various forms of “squatter reform” legislation. The Georgia Squatter Reform Act was signed into law last month by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. Florida and New York have enacted similar laws. Is squatting the crisis for property owners that some politicians and media commentators argue that it is? Or is it just the latest “right-wing talking point,” as a Washington Post headline put it?

Most reasonable people would stipulate that stealing the property of others by illegally occupying it is morally and legally indefensible. But I believe we should go a step further and ask ourselves whether the fact that the problem seems to be concentrated in metropolitan areas like Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and Orlando — all places grappling with housing affordability challenges — has anything to do with the way the issue is being politicized. Even in those regions, the documented cases of squatting are relatively low, given the total number of households.

The National Rental Home Council, a trade association that represents individual and institutional investors of single-family homes, estimates that roughly 1,200 metro Atlanta homes have been occupied by squatters, while data from the KB Advisory Group shows there are more than 1.4 million households in the metropolitan area. Twelve hundred properties would constitute only a tiny fraction of that total. Newsweek reported that the numbers of homes taken over by squatters for Dallas-Fort Worth and Orlando are even smaller — 475 and 125, respectively.

The Florida bill that GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis signed in March allows property owners to request law enforcement to immediately remove squatters from their properties if the owners request that the individuals leave and the squatters are not current or former tenants in a legal dispute with their landlords. In Georgia, the bill Kemp signed would increase penalties for squatting and help property owners get individuals out of the houses they occupy illegally more quickly.

Georgia and Florida legislators passed those bills without significant opposition. But after a Venezuelan “migrant influencer” who had entered the U.S. illegally posted social media messages boasting about squatting and urging migrants to circumvent U.S. laws to beat the system in other ways, conservatives immediately seized upon the opportunity to construct a dubious narrative of a link between illegal migration and squatting.

“The dramatic increase in the number of illegal immigrants squatting in American homes is yet another example of how the disastrous situation at our southern border is impacting communities across the country,” U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser, a Pennsylvania Republican, said in introducing federal legislation to make squatting a deportable offense. “This legislation will serve as a deterrent to illegal aliens contemplating violating the homes and properties of American citizens.”

Protecting U.S. borders and developing comprehensive programs for immigration are two important issues with huge implications for our economy. Both have been politicized to the point that public officials on both sides of the aisle are not likely to come up with solutions that will work anytime soon. Conflating squatting with migrants entering our country illegally in search for better lives is not likely to address the stalemate or move the ball toward offering a pathway to citizenship for migrants who want to come to America and for employers who desperately need their skills and labor.

The roots of squatting are imbedded in our economic system and its accompanying ideology that elevates private property rights above all other rights. This type of thinking has led to many problems, including investors purchasing thousands of homes that were once owned by minorities and others who had fallen on hard times due to inequities of the economy, such as the predatory lending practices of banks and other financial institutions. It was an opportunity for corporations like Starwood Capital Group, FirstKey Homes and Amherst Group — all of which claim they have had to contend with squatting on multiple properties — to purchase homes in bulk and then rent them out, often at exorbitant prices.

Instead of playing to the fears and biases of their bases, if state and local policymakers really want to deal with the crisis of housing, including any isolated issues related to squatting, there are things they could do. They could crack down on landlords who allow their properties to become dilapidated and easy targets for vagrants and squatters. They could explore alternatives to slapping liens for back taxes and water bills on properties owned by individuals who have fallen on hard times. They could strengthen laws against predatory lending practices and redlining that have contributed to the depression of property values and made it easier for Wall Street firms to scoop up homes once owners are in default.

Above all, they could engage the public in a radical, but moral, conversation about private property rights, especially as they touch upon individuals and corporations profiting from others’ misfortunes.

Now is the time to tackle the moral implications of some owning multiple houses while others are underhoused or homeless. Now is the time for all of us to remember that the founding of our nation involved the taking of land that was not ours. And some are still waiting for their promised 40 acres and a mule.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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