Ownership, Title How to Prevent and Address Squatter Abuses Against Property Owners

New York City squatters have been making headlines by evicting legal homeowners from their property, with extreme examples including the arrest of a homeowner trying to regain possession of their house in Flushing, Queens. With the influx of migrants seeking shelter and the arrest of a popular Venezuelan Tik Tok influencer who peddled a popular "how to" video, this abuse has created significant concern for New York City (NYC) homeowners - especially who may travel for several weeks or who own investment homes. This article will provide insight and legal tips for protecting your home against squatters in NYC.

How squatters establish legal rights of occupation against property owners

Forest-Hills-Gardens-House.jpgA squatter is someone who occupies property without legal ownership or permission from the property owner. The intent is not merely to trespass on the property, but to take ownership and/or control of the property adverse to the property owner. Squatters may target vacant, abandoned, or neglected properties,- those which will likely stay empty for more than one consecutive month. Homeowners who have two homes (and may vacation or live elsewhere seasonally) or use the property as an investment can be among the more likley victims, as they may reside elsewhere for an extended time and not have reason to physically return imminently to the premises. Squatters target such homes seeking to establish occupation for 30 consecutive days, which is among the shortest period of time to create a legal residency in the U.S. and would require a property owner to use the legal system to evict them.

Fraudsters have also exploited an unintended consequence of New York City Administrative Code Chapter 5, Unlawful Eviction, Section 26-521, by taking control of the premises, changing the locks, and then offering a fraudulent lease to innocent persons. In such a case, the innocent party with a 'fake lease' will still have rights against the rightful property owner to prevent eviction. The regulation at the root of this problem appears below:

New York City Administrative Code § 26-521 Unlawful Eviction

a. It shall be unlawful for any person to evict or attempt to evict an occupant of a dwelling unit who has lawfully occupied the dwelling unit for thirty consecutive days or longer or who has entered into a lease with respect to such dwelling unit or has made a request for a lease for such dwelling unit pursuant to the hotel stabilization provisions of the rent stabilization law except to the extent permitted by law pursuant to a warrant of eviction or other order of a court of competent jurisdiction or a governmental vacate order by:​

(1) using or threatening the use of force to induce the occupant to vacate the dwelling unit; or
(2) engaging in a course of conduct which interferes with or is intended to interfere with or disturb the comfort, repose, peace or quiet of such occupant in the use or occupancy of the dwelling unit, to induce the occupant to vacate the dwelling unit including, but not limited to, the interruption or discontinuance of essential services; or
(3) engaging or threatening to engage in any other conduct which prevents or is intended to prevent such occupant from the lawful occupancy of such dwelling unit or to induce the occupant to vacate the dwelling unit including, but not limited to, removing the occupant's possessions from the dwelling unit, removing the door at the entrance to the dwelling unit; removing, plugging or otherwise rendering the lock on such entrance door inoperable; or changing the lock on such entrance door without supplying the occupant with a key.​

How to protect your home and property against squatters

  • Ensure the property is inspected at least every 2-3 weeks, either by the homeowner or another party.
  • Install surveillance equipment (such as video cameras) that can alert the property owner to the presence of trespassers during vacancy periods.
  • Create signs of habitation during vacancy periods, such as timed lighting inside the residence.
  • Ensure adequate lighting and security systems exist to deter unauthorized entry.
  • Affix "No Trespassing" signs on the property and take photos of the property to confirm existence and establish a provable date of installation, such as date stamping or sending the photo using a date certifiable method.
  • Create relationships with neighbors and establish neighborhood committees to report suspicious circumstances and activity.
  • Have contact information of and create a relationship with local authorities (such as police precincts), notifying them of vacancy periods and requests for occasional patrols.
  • Consider retaining a part time property manager who will periodically check and maintain the property.

The legal process to remove squatters

If squatters have lived on your property and taken possession of your home for more than thirty (30) days in New York City, you may need to follow NYC eviction laws and procedures. Resorting to self-help, such as replacing the locks on the property and forcibly removing the squatters may create legal troubles for the property owner. Legal procedures to evict squatters in New York City include:
  • Serving a ten (10) day notice to quit on the squatters and all who reside on the property.
  • Upon experation of the notice, file an eviction complaint (which may be called a petition for special proceedings) in a court of jurisdiction (which may be in the county of the property.)
  • The court will issue a summons to be served upon the squatters to appear in court, which must be served on the squatter by a non-party to the action (someone other than yourself of legal age or a professional process server.)
  • You will be required to establish your ownership of the property with the court and the process will proceed using the legal system to obtain control over the property.

New York State Assembly bill to address squatter abuse

In an attempt to address the squatter abuse to some degree, Assemblymember Jake Blumencranz introduced Assembly Bill A6894, which "extends the time period for tenancy rights from 30 days to 45 days of possession" and "adds squatting to the definition of criminal trespass in the third degree." If the bill passes through the legislative process, which is lengthy, it would not be retroactively applied and only a prospective measure.
Real Estate Law
Property Management
Jurisdiction
  1. New York
About author
Michael Wechsler
Michael M. Wechsler is an experienced attorney, founder of TheLaw.com, A. Research Scholar at Columbia Business School and of-counsel to Kaplan, Williams & Graffeo, LLC. He was also an SVP and chief Internet strategist at Zedge.net and legal consultant at Kroll Ontrack, a leading service e-discovery and computer forensics service provider.

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