© 2024 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Texas lawmakers pledge to tackle squatting after hearing ‘horror’ stories from homeowners

In Texas, squatters can legally possess property through what’s called adverse possession. A panel of Texas state senators heard testimony around the issue on Wednesday.
Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/KUT News
In Texas, squatters can legally possess property through what’s called adverse possession. A panel of Texas state senators heard testimony around the issue on Wednesday.

Texas state senators vowed to strengthen anti-squatting laws when the lawmakers reconvene in Austin next year following an interim hearing Wednesday on what they say is a growing problem in the state.

Testimony before the Texas Senate Committee on Local Government included Terri Boyette, whose social media posts about her experiences with a squatter on her property in Mesquite went viral earlier this year. Boyette told lawmakers that, in some cases, squatters have more rights than actual homeowners.

“I discovered my squatter on [June 19th]. As of today, eleven months later, I still don’t live in my house,” she said. “It actually took seven months from the date that I hired an attorney to get back into being able to evict because of the time it took to get a court date.”

Boyette said the squatter, a handyman she hired, took over possession of her house while she was out of town for a few weeks. After she secured an eviction notice, the squatter was given 30 extra days to appeal the eviction notice because, she told lawmakers, “It was the holidays, and the judge didn’t want him to be homeless. Even though I was homeless.”

In Texas, squatters can legally possess property through what’s called adverse possession, according to Central Texas-based Rollingwood Management Inc. The company states squatters must physically possess the property, make it obvious they’re living there, show they aren’t sharing it with others, and stay there for a certain amount of time.

Texas Senate holds a hearing to draft new anti-squatter laws. The harmful effects of LED lights for some people and the music boxes of Villa Finale.

The issue is tricky for the actual homeowners because squatting isn’t typically considered trespassing or breaking and entering, which are crimes. Instead, the eviction process is a civil matter, which homeowners say makes it more challenging to regain their property.

Boyette said she is a textbook example of those complexities. After discovering the squatter, she called the police and was told: “Well, this is a civil matter. You’ll have to go to court.”

Before her court date, Boyette said the squatter sold her belongings and trashed her house, turning it into a “drug den.” She was also told her only remedy was to file a civil suit for damages.

“The person in my home is a homeless crackhead. What am I supposed to sue them for? Nothing. To date, he’s out walking on the street, and I am $150,000 in debt.”

At times, lawmakers were aghast that these incidents – called “horror stories” by the committee’s chairman, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston – could happen in Texas and not some liberal East coast state.

Bettencourt reiterated several times that lawmakers would address the issue in the future and said representatives from law enforcement agencies across Texas would be called to testify on how they handle squatters while legislation is being considered.

Lawmakers also struggled to grasp how prevalent squatting is in Texas.

The committee was told that instances in the DFW metroplex exceeded 400, with an even higher number of cases in the Houston area. But Bettencourt conceded there was currently no state database tracking squatting incidents. The office of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who ordered the committee to investigate squatting, did not respond to questions about how common squatting is in Texas.

A more sophisticated system

If Texans think squatters, or potential squatters, drive around looking for what they think is an abandoned property, they’re wrong, the committee was told.

Judge Lincoln Goodwin, a justice of the peace in Harris County, testified that people looking to take over property are turning to public records for information.

“The alleged squatters are able to find public documents related to, maybe a foreclosure, and there is an abandoned house due to a foreclosure,” he said. “Maybe there is an empty house because the occupant has passed away and it’s in probate. Those documents are public. Or maybe there is just something on a real estate website and [the property] has been listed for a long time.”

Although lawmakers on the panel promised quick action, they won’t be able to consider legislation that affects squatting until early next year when the state’s next legislative session begins. That is, unless Gov. Greg Abbott calls lawmakers back to Austin before January to work on the issue in a special session.

Copyright 2024 KERA

Julián Aguilar | The Texas Newsroom