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Proposed Legislation Aims to Head Off Problems With Squatters

Becky Stares/Shutterstock.com
Legislation is being proposed in New Jersey to make sure property owners can have squatters removed more easily.

By Christopher South

In 2016, Villas resident Jonnie Walker was running a small lawn-care business, mainly cutting lawns where the homes were unoccupied. Once, he took a job for a friend of a friend – a woman who was living in Florida part of the year and who wanted her grass cut and lawn cleaned up before she returned.

Walker’s crew arrived at the house, and a man came out and asked them what they were doing.

“I said we were there to cut the grass and clean up the lawn,” he said.

The man told him he lived there and he mowed the lawn. Walker told the man the name of the woman who hired them to cut the grass, and the man told him the woman didn’t live there, he did.

Walker then called the woman, and she said she had not rented her home, nor had she allowed anyone to stay there. At her request, Walker called the Lower Township Police Department; he said the officers spoke to the man for a while and came back and spoke to him.

“The officer said they had a newborn and he couldn’t make them leave,” Walker said. “The law really favors the squatters rather than the property owner.”

Officials in law enforcement, the Legislature and real estate say squatting is very rare in Cape May County. But they are concerned that the problem is growing across the state and nation, and 1st District legislators are pushing a measure in Trenton to address it before it becomes bigger.

“Squatting has long been a concern in New Jersey, but the situation has escalated with individuals openly discussing how undocumented immigrants can exploit legal loopholes to ‘invade’ homes,” state Sen. Michael Testa said.

“Passing the bill that I and Sen. (Doug) Steinhardt have put forward is a crucial step toward holding accountable those who terrorize homeowners and communities across New Jersey by making it a criminal act to take over someone’s home.”

While defiant trespass is a disorderly persons offense under current law, Testa’s bill would upgrade squatting and its related activities to a fourth-degree crime, carrying a jail sentence of up to 18 months and a possible fine of up to $10,000.

He said his bill would streamline the process to remove squatters from someone’s home efficiently instead of the matter going through the court system for years.

The two 1st District assemblymen voiced strong support for Testa’s bill.

“People should not live in fear of returning to find strangers occupying their homes and properties, only to endure months or even years of legal battles to reclaim what is rightfully theirs,” Assemblyman Erik Simonsen said.

“It’s outrageous that such cases are treated merely as civil matters, rather than criminal offenses. The lack of accountability for those who unlawfully seize someone’s home is utterly unacceptable.”

Assemblyman Antwan McClellan, who works for the Cape May County Sheriff’s Office, said: “The shore community in the 1st Legislative District is brimming with second homes, presenting tempting targets for opportunistic squatters. It’s high time we elevate this issue from a mere civil dispute to a criminal offense.

“Landlords shouldn’t be burdened with lengthy and costly legal battles to reclaim what rightfully belongs to them. We must implement stronger laws to protect property owners and ensure swift repercussions for those who dare to seize homes that aren’t theirs unlawfully.”

The issue of squatting came up at a recent meeting of the Cape Issues group, formed by Herald Publisher Art Hall and others.

Patricia Gray Hendricks, president-elect of the Cape May County Association of Realtors, said at that meeting, “I think the first thing that needs to be established is what squatting is and see how New Jersey views squatters. Do they have rights? What does a person do when they find a squatter in their home? What does the Cape May County sheriff say – and what do the municipal police departments say?”

“New Jersey does not have squatters’ rights,” Middle Township Police Capt. Tracey Super said in an interview.

Super said the law in New Jersey says a squatter has to maintain a property for over 30 years to have rights. That same information was posted on propertyclub.nyc in reference to New Jersey. The site said if a squatter is living on someone else’s property for fewer than 30 years, and the legal property owner tells them to leave, they are no longer a squatter but are considered a trespasser.

“They would be trespassing and would be arrested,” Super said.

The captain said his department observes section 2C:18-3.b of the criminal code, titled “Unlicensed entry of structures.” Subsection b says, “Defiant trespasser. A person commits a petty disorderly persons offense if, knowing that he is not licensed or privileged to do so, he enters or remains in any place as to which notice against trespass is given by.”

Hendricks, Super and McClellan all said squatting is nearly unheard of in Cape May County. Super said more commonly police will hear of someone taking shelter in a shed, but not taking over a house.

At the Cape Issues meeting, the issue of squatting came up in the context of the problem’s gaining attention in some larger cities in the United States. A recent Wall Street Journal article, for example, claimed Atlanta had 1,200 homes taken over by squatters. Dallas-Fort Worth, according to the article, had 475 homes where people were squatting, and Orange County, Florida, had 125. The article cited the fact that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill in his state to protect homeowners.

The article related a number of stories concerning squatters. In one case, a New York City homeowner who inherited a house from her parents that was taken over by squatters was arrested for changing the locks. In another, an illegal immigrant from Venezuela learned about squatters’ rights in the United States and planned to take advantage of the situation.

Testa’s bill, Senate Bill S-725, and its companion, Assembly Bill A-731, would create three criminal offenses: Housebreaking, unlawful occupancy and unlawful reentry, all crimes of the fourth degree. They would contain the following definitions:

  • Housebreaking: When a person who forcibly enters an uninhabited or vacant dwelling knowing or having reason to believe that such entry is without permission of the owner of the dwelling, with the intent to take up residence.
  • Unlawful Occupancy: When a person who takes up residence in an uninhabited or vacant dwelling and knows or has reason to believe that such residency is without permission of the owner of the dwelling.
  • Unlawful reentry: A person commits unlawful reentry if an owner of property has recovered possession of the property from the person pursuant to a court order and, without the authority of the court or permission of the owner, the person reenters the property.

The bills were referred to the Senate and Assembly judiciary committees.

Contact the author, Christopher South, at csouth@cmcherald.com or 609-886-8600, ext. 128.

Reporter

Christopher South is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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