Squatters Have Become a Major Problem in California and Across the U.S.

Last Updated: June 3, 2024By Tags:

Thousands of properties across America are being invaded by squatters, who move in and live rent-free often causing major damage, or in worse cases, injury or death to property owners — and there’s really no expedient, easy legal way for property owners or the police to remove them. Squatting occurs when someone occupies what is typically an uninhabited or abandoned residential property that they do not own, rent, or otherwise have permission to live in. Although squatting is illegal in California, squatters still have certain rights under California law and removing squatters from your property can often take lots of time and lots of your money.

These days, there are numerous internet forums and dark web pages devoted to squatting that offer a “dummies guide” to breaking into someone else’s home and establishing a right to be there. Many of these online forums have been targeting recent immigrants. Squatters know the tell-tale signs of an available property to invade. Many squatters look through real estate listing sites like Zillow or Trulia to identify homes that have been on the market for extended periods without any activity before making a visit in person. One squatter in an online forum suggested placing an orange parking cone in the driveway of the home and coming back a week later to see if it’s been moved before breaking in. Other squatters use online tools such as Google Earth to scan neighborhoods for swimming pools with green colored water, a sign that a property’s owner is absent.

Because very often law enforcement is reluctant to step in and address what they perceive as a civil and non-criminal matter, property owners have turned to vigilante squatter removers like Flash Shelton in Los Angeles who calls himself the “Squatter Hunter,” who along with his crew, armed with guns, barge in on squatters or waits for them to leave and then moves in. Their plan: live with the squatter, install cameras, dirty the bathrooms, take the “best” spot on the couch, eat the squatter’s food, and make things uncomfortable for the squatters until they eventually leave. In other words, the goal of the squatter remove is to “out squat the squatters.” These vigilante squatter removers are far less costly and much faster than the court system which can take approximately 11-12 months and untold thousands of dollars in legal fees to remove a squatter. However, eventually, someone is going to get hurt and that might be the squatters or the squatter removers. In a sense, we are dealing with the “wild, wild West” here.

Very often, when asked to leave, trespassers and squatters often refuse and sometimes persuade law enforcement that they are authorized occupants by presenting false documentation or by stating that an oral lease is in place, which then requires rental property owners to file an eviction action in order to remove them, which often takes up to 12-months and is very costly. To make matters worse, often times trespassers and squatters frequently cause substantial property damage with graffiti, theft, or destruction of building materials, and also conduct criminal activities such as narcotics sales or rage parties.

Many property owners just do not realize the scope of the squatter problem until they find their vacant property ransacked and damaged or unexpectedly occupied by strangers. To avoid the adverse possession claims squatters can make after living at a vacant property undetected for long periods, property owners must take preventative measures such as frequent inspections and installing alarm systems and security cameras. In addition, property owners should consider posting no trespassing signs, making the property appear occupied (e.g., park car in driveway, run sprinklers, put lights on timers, etc.), hire a property management company to monitor the property, and timely address any code violations or unsafe conditions. Adverse possession is a legal principle that allows someone to acquire legal ownership of a property that they do not legally own and is also known as “squatter’s rights” – See “Squatting and Trespassing Under California Law” below.

Squatter News Stories are Horrific

Today’s news is seemingly overflowing with squatter stories. As reported recently by the Los Angeles Times, a group of squatters took over a home in a quiet Sherman Oaks neighborhood for nearly one year and used false documents to change title into their name – they claimed that when the broke in, they found the property owner deceased, but still tried to dispose of his body in an acid bath. In another matter, squatters took over and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to a Beverly Hills adjacent mansion that was used for several months to hold parties and conduct narcotics sales. In New York City, only having recently lost her mother, 52-year-old Nadia Vitels reportedly found two teenagers, Halley Tejada, 19, and Kensly Alston, 18, squatting in her deceased mother’s apartment – the teens killed Vitels by shoving her into a wall, and then stuffed her body into a duffle bag and fled in her Lexus. In Las Vegas, an 82-year-old woman was found buried in her Las Vegas backyard after she was the victim of squatters who broke into her home, killed her and then dismembered her body when they moved in.

Several States are Trying to Address the Issue

Four states so far are trying to address the squatter issue, with one state, Florida, having already passed an anti-squatter bill, and three other states, including New York, Georgia and Alabama, with proposed bills working their way through the legislative process. In general, these bills make squatting a criminal activity as either misdemeanor or felony, depending upon the severity and level of property damage caused.

In the State of Florida, for example, Florida House Bill 621 (Signed by Gov. DeSantis) allows a property owner to request that law enforcement immediately remove a squatter from their property if the following conditions are met: (i) The individual has unlawfully entered and remains on the property; (ii) The individual has been directed to leave the property by the owner but has not done so; and (iii) The individual is not a current or former tenant in a legal dispute. This bill garnered broad and unanimous bipartisan support in Florida.

In the State of New York, proposed Senate Bill 8867 (Senator Mario R. Mattera) includes a four-part proposal that would enable law enforcement to immediately evict individuals from residential properties swiftly, based on a property owner’s sworn complaint and without court involvement of any kind. The approach essentially mirrors the Florida bill by providing a rapid solution for property owners to reclaim their property without court intervention. To balance the aggressive stance, however, the New York bill includes substantial civil protections for individuals wrongfully removed, including potential triple damages, restoration of possession, and attorney fees for the aggrieved party.

The proposals working their way through the legislative process in Georgia and Alabama have similar elements to the Florida bill as well. California property owners need similar protections and could greatly benefit from passage of an anti-squatter bill. During a recent lobbying visit to Sacramento, our delegation discussed the need for anti-squatter legislation with approximately a dozen legislators, several of whom expressed interest in investigating the matter further for the 2024 / 2025 legislative session.

Squatting and Trespassing Under California Law

In California, it is illegal for someone to squat or trespass on vacant property without the owner’s permission. A vacant property may be an uninhabited residential building or land that is unused and unoccupied. Even if a property is vacant, squatters have no legal right to occupy the property without authorization from the owner. Property owners have the right to take legal action to evict or remove squatters from any vacant building or land. Squatting and trespassing; however, are different under California law as trespassing refers to someone entering the property without permission, while squatting involves occupying and living on the property without permission. Both are illegal, but squatting involves residing on the property while trespassing does not.

In California, a squatter can try to make an “adverse possession” claim to gain legal ownership of the property they are occupying. This requires meeting specific continuous possession requirements over a 5-year period along with each of the following requirements, and only then, the squatter can file a lawsuit to claim legal ownership of a property that they do not own:

  • “Hostile Possession” by occupying the property without permission, meaning the squatter occupies the property without permission from the legal owner, and do not have a rental agreement or any type of lease or agreement giving them permission to live there.
  • “Actual Possession” by physically residing on the property. Occasional visits or storing belongings will not qualify for adverse possession as a squatter must live on the property continuously.
  • “Exclusive Possession” by excluding all others from the property. In other words, a squatter cannot share possession with the owner of the property, nor with other squatters, tenants, or anyone else during the 5-year period as the property must be occupied solely by the squatter.
  • “Continuous Possession” by residing on the property for the entire 5-year period.
  • “Open and Notorious Possession” by using the property openly without hiding occupancy.

In addition to the 5-year requirement and meeting the requirements for hostile, actual, exclusive, continuous and “open and notorious” possession, a squatter must pay the property taxes on the property for 5-years to acquire the property through adverse possession in California.

While property owners have the right to evict squatters from their buildings or land in California, this requires giving the squatters proper notice first such as a 3-day written notice before pursuing what will likely be a lengthy and costly unlawful detainer (eviction) process. In order to ultimately remove the squatter, a court order is necessary along with a Sheriff lockout.

On occasion, a property owner may allow someone to use or occupy a property with an oral “at-will” agreement, but this creates a tenant “at will” arrangement without a formal, written lease, and as a result, these “at will” tenants are not considered to be squatters with adverse possession rights since their occupancy was being permitted.

California’s Senate Bill 612: Limited Protections from Trespassers and Squatters

In October 2023, Governor Newsom signed Senate Bill 612, which provides limited protections to property owners from trespassers and squatters. Senate Bill 612 allows property owners to request police assistance with trespassers or squatters if they submit a no trespass letter, commonly referred to as a “602 letter” or “trespass letter” to their local law enforcement agency on a form provided by the local law enforcement agency. These 602 letters, once filed, can remain in effect for up to one year, and in the event a property is permanently closed and signs are posted as such, the 602 authorization letter can remain in effect for three years. The legislation also allows property owners to electronically submit their requests to law enforcement agencies.

Senate Bill 602 permits a single request for assistance to be made and submitted electronically, in a notarized writing on a form provided by the law enforcement agency, to the local police for a time period determined by local ordinance or 12 months, whichever is shorter, and identified by specific dates, during which there is a fire hazard or the owner, owner’s agent, or person in lawful possession of the property is absent from the premises. The request may remain in place for up to 3 years when the premises or property is closed to the public and posted as being.

Written by Daniel Yukelson

Daniel Yukelson is currently the Executive Director of The Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA). As a Certified Public Accountant, Yukelson began his career at Ernst & Young, the global accounting firm, and has since served in senior financial roles principally as Chief Financial Officer for various public, private and start-up companies. Prior to joining AAGLA, Yukelson served for 15 years as Chief Financial Officer for Premiere Radio Networks, now a subsidiary of I-Heart Media, and for more than 3 years as Chief Financial Officer of Oasis West Realty, the owner of the Beverly Hilton and Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills where he was involved with the development and construction of the Waldorf. Yukelson was formerly Chairperson of the City of Beverly Hills Planning Commission and served on both Beverly Hills’ Planning Commission for 6 years and Public Works Commission for 3 years.


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