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Many squatters know and exploit Nevada laws to remain in homes for free

Imagine returning from a business trip and seeing someone inside your house — walking around in pajamas, acting like he owns the place. To your surprise, he claims he has a right to be there.

Then he presents you with a lease stating that he is the home’s legal tenant.

“People say to me, how is it if somebody breaks into the house to steal my television, you can call the police and they will come out and arrest the person and it becomes a felony, but if someone moves into my house, they won’t be arrested, and if they are, it becomes a misdemeanor,” said local attorney Edward D. Kania. “And now there’s two, three, maybe four weeks of legal process work involved to get them out.”

Kania, the president of Southern Nevada Eviction Services, added, “It’s simple. Until the law changes, there’s nothing that can be done.”

The legalities of squatting

Oftentimes, squatters are aware of the laws involved and use them to their advantage.

Prior to AB 386 going into effect Oct. 1 — establishing criminal offenses of housebreaking, unlawful entry and unlawful re-entry as they pertain to squatting — combating squatters was difficult for law enforcement. The new law basically created two new crimes: housebreaking and unlawful occupancy, making it a criminal offense for squatters to re-enter a home after they have been removed.

“Before the new law, the eviction process could take months — now it can take days,” said Scott Beaudry, president of the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors.

According to Kania, in order to get a squatter out, one of two scenarios has to happen.

The homeowner can call the police, report a squatter and wait for them to arrest everyone inside the house before changing the locks. Then, the owner has to post a notice of retaking possession (a legal document obtained in court) on the property for 21 days. During that time, the squatter can file with the court to ask for a hearing to return to the property.

If the squatter doesn’t request a hearing, a lockout happens, and the homeowner has to keep the squatter’s belongings safe for 21 days — either inside a storage unit (at the expense of the squatter) or inside the house.

After 21 days, the homeowner can throw out or donate the items.

Another obstacle to removing a squatter: If a squatter claims something is missing from his belongings — such as a watch or a few dollars — the homeowner can be taken to court, further delaying the eviction process.

The second scenario is if the police do not want to get involved, it forces the homeowner to give the squatter a four-day notice to surrender.

“Whoever serves it has to go to the property, and if the squatter is there, they have to sign for it,” Kania said. “If no one is there, they have to mail it or post it on the property.”

The squatter then has four business days to leave the home or file a response with Las Vegas Justice Court, asking the judge not to lock them out by claiming they are a legitimate tenant — which also delays the process by about a week.

If by the fifth business day the squatter isn’t out, the homeowner can file a complaint for removal in Las Vegas Justice Court.

The homeowner must pay a $71 fee for the court and a $50 to $100 fee to have the constable remove the squatter. Hiring an attorney can cost up to $1,000.

Once the squatter is evicted, the homeowner must again hold his belongings for 21 days.

“Even with this new law, squatters still get a few weeks of free living,” Kania said. “‘Squatters know they can get free legal advice at the Civil Law Self-Help Center inside the Las Vegas Justice Court. They are well aware of their rights.”

Kania said he wrote 13 notices to surrender in June and July for homeowners dealing with squatters.

“We deal with this everywhere in the valley,” Kania said. “Despite the new law, it’s still an ongoing problem. Part of the issue lies in that police take time to investigate a situation. Other times, police officers do not want to get involved with a civil matter.”

Oftentimes, that is the heart of the problem: Because squatters can go to the Clark County Assessor’s website and find out who the homeowner is, they can create a fake lease with a fake signature. When squatters claim they are tenants, it then becomes a civil dispute rather than a criminal matter.

In addition, if police think there’s illegal activity happening in an area, they must wait until SWAT has time to investigate with them, Kania said.

Squatters can also buy extra time in a property by saying they need more time or money to move, claiming they lost their job or are filing for bankruptcy — which completely stops the eviction process, Kania said.

“I had one client who owned a fourplex and had a squatter who he had evicted. The squatter moved straight across to another unit, and the client had to start the eviction process all over again,” Kania said.

Many times before leaving the area, squatters have been know to throw elaborate parties or trash the property as a final “screw you” to the landlord, added Kania.

Nevada also has a squatter’s rights law, otherwise known as adverse possession, which can deem a squatter the legal property owner based on certain requirements.

In order to gain the property’s title, the law requires the squatter occupy an otherwise neglected property publicly for at least five years, with “color of title” and/or payment of property taxes (“color of title” generally means he has reason to believe he has the right to possess the property), according to findlaw.com, a popular legal information website.

“This is pretty rare,” Kania said of adverse possession. “I’ve never seen it happen here in Nevada.”

“Adverse possession doesn’t really apply to what we’re doing here,” added North Las Vegas Police Officer Scott Vaughn. “Adverse possession requires paying property taxes for multiple years. We’re dealing with this problem in a much smaller time frame than that.”

In California, however, that’s a different story.

A strange but true tale of adverse possession

Steven DiCaprio, 44, is the founder and board president of Land Action, a nonprofit that assists social justice and environmental organizers in acquiring land for the purpose of inclusive development through affordable housing, sustainable land use and community building. He has been living in an Oakland, Calif., property for more than a decade.

California has an adverse possession law similar to Nevada’s, which DiCaprio learned about and followed. This month, he is set to have a hearing that should grant him as the legal owner of the property he’s been occupying and paying taxes on, he said.

“The reason I started doing this was because I was homeless,” he said. “It’s not that I thought adverse possession was a viable idea. It was an act of desperation. I lost my job, and I was evicted from my home to make room for the dot com people who had more money. It can happen to anyone.”

He started by making a list of abandoned properties and then began researching their past. He said he found the property he’s been living in after a lot of “trial and error and good luck.”

He was arrested and convicted for trespassing at another property and has since paid more than 10 years’ worth of property taxes and blight fees at the current property.

“This property has been dormant for 30 years now,” DiCaprio said. “There are roughly 21 vacant units for every homeless person in America, while there are property owners hoarding multiple properties to keep them off the market and drive up housing. Squatters hold them accountable. That’s why adverse possession was invented — to prevent people from keeping properties off the market.

“This isn’t just a property rights issues, it’s a human rights issue.”

For more on Land Action, visit land-action.org.

Editor’s note: This is part two of a three-part series on squatting in the Las Vegas Valley. If you’ve had an experience with squatting in your neighborhood, contact View reporter Sandy Lopez.

To reach North View reporter Sandy Lopez, email slopez@viewnews.com or call 702-383-4686. Find her on Twitter: @JournalismSandy.

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