James Burling of the Pacific Legal Foundation says squatting is "a fairly big problem, and it's pretty hard to avoid" because police officers cannot make the legal determination between a person who falsely claims they have a right to be in a home and the owner who does not live there.
He says the proposed legislation, House Bill 621, could be an answer to the prayers of homeowners like Patti Peeples, whose fight to free her Jacksonville residence of squatters gained national attention last year.
After sending a handyman out for a job, Peeples discovered two females had broken into a rental house she owned and had caused almost $40,000 in damages. She had hoped to prepare the property for a home inspection before selling it to an interested buyer, but the squatters showed Peeples a fake lease and said they had a right to remain on the property, which they accessed by dismantling an existing deadbolt lock and replacing it with one of their own.
In November, Republican Rep. Kevin Steele filed his bill, which aims to close the squatting loophole in existing laws that offer virtually no protection for homeowners.
"These squatters know the laws better than most attorneys do," Peeples told Fox News in April. "They use them to their advantage, and the police are absolutely hamstrung. They know this is a civil matter. The police have no right to remove these squatters and treat them as criminals, as individuals that have broken in or trespassed. They simply throw up their hands and say, 'You need to go through the civil courts system and evict them.' That can take 30 days, six months, and, in some cities, 18 months or more. This is a nationwide problem."
Indeed, on the other coast, Flash Shelton encountered a similar issue last year. A handyman by trade, Shelton gained social media fame when he out-squatted the squatters in his mother's California home.
His father had recently died, and his mother could not remain in the home alone, so they decided to put it up for rent. A potential renter, who lacked the necessary money or credit to rent the house, took advantage of the fact that Shelton lived out of town, and she moved into the family's home anyway.
'Hey man, there are people living in your house'
Shelton began to hear that the house was occupied, but local police told him they could take no action against the trespassers and that he would have to approach the problem through the courts.
Instead, he wrote up a lease agreement with his mother, designating himself as the legal occupant. He then drove to the house and gave the squatter until midnight to remove her belongings.
"The thing that I summarized the most from 2023 is that a lot of people … might have an issue with something, and they might talk about it, and they might vent about it and go on social media about it, but when it comes to actually doing something, I don't know if people are afraid to actually put themselves out there or put their name on something," Shelton said on a YouTube post that is now approaching 5 million views.
"Our country is so upside-down in so many ways, not just squatters," he continued. "There are a lot of issues that we need to deal with, and I don't think we're finding a way to deal with them. Regardless of political party, squatting affects everyone, and it's not blurred by lines."
Back in Florida, Steele's bill would give new powers to law enforcement, enabling them to immediately remove illegal occupants who cannot provide legitimate documentation or proof of rent payment.
"I pursued this bill because I saw the impact that it had on Patti as well as others in the state," Steele recently explained to Jacksonville television station. "We're putting penalties on the individuals if they provide fraudulent documentation."
The Sunshine State representative hopes the bill will get squatters out of homes and hold them accountable for their criminal activity.