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Ohio lawmakers introduce bill to fight ‘squatters’ taking over homes


Ohio lawmakers introduce bill to fight ‘squatters’ taking over homes

Apr 17, 2024 | 4:45 am ET
By Morgan Trau
Ohio lawmakers introduce bill to fight ‘squatters’ taking over homes
COLUMBUS, OH - Worker Mike Friley removes a table during an eviction in the unincorporated community of Galloway west of Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Stephen Zenner/Getty Images).

Ohio lawmakers are trying to protect homeowners from “squatters,” people trying to claim rights over someone else’s residence. However, housing advocates worry that the proposed legislation will have unintended consequences that could hurt individuals facing homelessness.

In the state, property owners have to serve squatters eviction notices and then take them to court to kick them out. The police department can only arrest people if they have warrants.

“If they waive a lease in front of law enforcement, even if it’s a false lease, it puts law enforcement in a position where they essentially have to view it as a civil matter,” state Rep. Jeff LaRe (R-Violet Township) said. “This means you’d have to go through the entire judicial process to have somebody removed from a house that you own and you pay a mortgage on.”

LaRe and state Rep. Jay Edwards (R-Nelsonville) introduced House Bill 478 to close a loophole, creating an expedited way to get trespassers out.

“We want to make sure that these homeowners don’t have to go through the expense and the process of gaining control of what’s rightfully theirs,” LaRe said.

The bill outlines the circumstances where a county sheriff can and can’t intervene, such as — law enforcement can’t remove a member of the record owner’s immediate family.

“It’s important we protect the rights of our home and property owners,” Edwards said. “This legislation will provide a clear and expedient way for owners to have squatters removed from their properties.”

The bill also designates squatting as a first-degree misdemeanor. If the individual causes more than $5,000 in damages to the property, the penalty will increase to a fourth-degree felony.

LaRe introduced this because of alleged undocumented immigrants putting out instructions on how to take possession of someone else’s or a vacant home.

A viral TikTok by the social media influencer Leonel Moreno showed him speaking in Spanish to his followers, giving them tips on how to claim “squatter’s rights” over a property.

Although removed from the video-sharing app, the clip has been republished by conservative pundits and politicians.

As detailed by The Washington Post, squatting incidents are rare but have become a Republican talking point.

Realities of “squatting”

Squatting isn’t as simple as the lawmakers are making it out to be, Case Western Reserve University Law Professor Avi Cover said.

He said “squatting rights,” if you even want to call it that, are only “valid” when someone has stayed in a property for such a significant amount of time that it is believable they own the home. The alleged trespasser must demonstrate open occupation for at least 21 years, according to state law.

The words “squatting” and “squatter” aren’t in the bill language, which raises red flags for Cover.

“When you create such a sweeping law, it will bring in people who aren’t doing that sort of thing,” he added.

He is also on the board of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, adding that the situation referenced by lawmakers where a family goes on vacation and returns to a man living in their home isn’t the reality of the majority of so-called squatting cases.

We have covered issues of squatting situations over the years, but the majority of them occur in vacant or abandoned properties. That being said, viewers have called us to report nuisance properties where some squatters have turned vacant homes into trouble.

But, Cover said, the “ambiguous” language of the bill could harm vulnerable people.

“Maybe there was an oral agreement between a pretty dilapidated property dwelling and an individual and then the owner then wants to evict that person,” he said.

There could be slumlords living out of state or live-in partners without their names attached to the deed.

The most worrisome aspect of the bill is the way it expedites the legal system, the professor added.

“It’s just not a sufficient process,” he said, referring to the bill. “There is a sufficient process by which a person can challenge that, have their day in court — you will go before a judge, a neutral decision maker, before they’re kicked out.”

He doesn’t like the amount of authority this gives the sheriff’s offices.

“I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for the law to speak and even for the police to be involved,” he said. “But there may be an unintended consequence because you could be more readily able to evict people, remove people from properties when they do have a legitimate right to be there.”

LaRe’s bill does have remedies, though, in case someone is wrongfully removed. A victim of this could sue for civil damages. That isn’t enough, Cover said. Oftentimes, people who are being victimized in these situations won’t have the money to fight this in court while also being homeless.

This language of the bill just has more consequences than it seems worth, the professor said, especially since this doesn’t seem to be a huge problem in Ohio.

There aren’t many cases around the state, LaRe acknowledged.

“It doesn’t sound like it’s a prevalent issue right now, but the spotlight is being put on this,” the lawmaker said. “We don’t want it to happen, so it’s just more of a preemptive measure to stop it from happening here in Ohio.”

The root cause

Some housing advocates, like Cover, have argued that this wouldn’t be happening if the state and the country weren’t struggling with a lack of affordable housing, skyrocketing property taxes and the trap of the poverty cycle and homelessness.

“The solution is not to over criminalize, further criminalize, tear apart or limit due process protections,” Cover said. “All those should be assured and then create more affordable housing, provide greater mental health services, provide more job training.”

The lawmaker agreed that the housing market was a problem, especially property tax hikes.

“I don’t think that there’s any end in sight with all the business development that we’re fortunate enough to have — those values are probably just going to continue to increase, which obviously drives the property taxes as well,” LaRe said. “Finding a solution for affordable housing, it’s really on the forefront of everyone’s mind right now.”

Ohio legislators on each side of the aisle have been trying to find ways to combat the state’s housing issues — but to no major avail.

“I know that having some kind of relief for our seniors, our veterans, those individuals that are on fixed income, is something that I’ve been looking into for the last couple of years,” he said. “We were fortunate enough to get an increase to the homestead exemption in this last operating budget — but by no means is that a solution.”

It is, however, a step in the right direction, he added.

Just Monday, state Reps. Dani Isaacsohn (D-Cincinnati) and Adam Mathews (R-Lebanon) announced bipartisan legislation addressing the housing supply shortage. It incentivizes municipalities to adopt “pro-housing policies that best fit their needs,” the legislators said.

Alternative legislation

Two other GOP lawmakers introduced a nearly identical bill to H.B. 478. State Reps. Tom Young (R-Washington Township) and Steve Demetriou (R-Bainbridge Township) proposed H.B. 480, with the only major change being that it has an emergency clause, meaning if signed by Gov. Mike DeWine, it would go into effect immediately.

The professor is hoping for them to reconsider, or at least keep or put protections into place for marginalized people, like the ones who lost their belongings during a sweep of a homeless camp in 2014.

“This could be criminalizing what could effectively be homelessness,” Cover said.

For LaRe, this isn’t about hurting anyone — other than trespassers terrorizing homes. He knows some cities aren’t being impacted by squatters, and he hopes to keep it that way.

“I’m glad that they’re not having those issues currently, but when we pass this legislation, it will ensure that they don’t have it in the future either,” the lawmaker said.

This article was originally published on News5Cleveland.com and is published in the Ohio Capital Journal under a content-sharing agreement. Unlike other OCJ articles, it is not available for free republication by other news outlets as it is owned by WEWS in Cleveland.

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