RIVERVIEW — Neighbors knew something was wrong when they saw strangers moving into the empty house on Avelar Ridge Drive in February.
The homeowner, who had recently been transferred to Illinois on military orders, never mentioned a renter. A neighbor called the homeowner and alerted the police.
On Feb. 23, deputies knocked on the door and nobody answered. But they could tell somebody was living there, police said, by the pry marks on the sliding glass doors in the back.
The next day, deputies returned and arrested Tequila Smith, 34, Latoya Gilbert, 30, and Michelle McMillon, 28, on charges of burglary of an unoccupied dwelling. All three women, officials said, have histories of “squatting” in empty homes.
It’s not a new problem in Hillsborough County. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office usually has between five and 20 open cases in which deputies are investigating people who are living illegally in another person’s home, officials said.
But now that the housing market is stabilizing, and thanks to a 2013 change to Florida’s Adverse Possession law, officials say they are better able to do something about the issue.
“Every week I get a list of how many we’re looking at,” said Major Rob Bullara, who oversees HCSO’s district 4 in the southeastern part of the county. “Our leads come from all over.”
Officials saw a spike in squatting cases a few years ago, when the housing crash prompted hundreds of foreclosures in the area.
Some of the people were moving into vacant homes and then filing for adverse possession with the property appraiser’s office, claiming that they now owned the property because they had been living in the home for a certain amount of time.
“We used to get one or two a year and then all the sudden we were getting a boat load of them,” said Will Shepherd, legal counsel for the property appraiser.
Florida’s adverse possession law is more than a century old and was originally crafted as a way to salvage abandoned properties and collect taxes on the land. It allows someone who has been living in a home and paying taxes on a property for at least seven years to eventually take legal possession of it.
A total of five adverse possession claims were filed in 2008 and 2009, with all of the claimants paying the taxes on the property in question, records show. That number jumped to 106 in 2012 and 150 in 2013, and mortgage companies were paying the taxes on most of those properties.
After the housing crash, people were moving into empty homes that were in foreclosure or had been abandoned because the owners were under water on the mortgages. People started assuming that they could just move into any vacant house and file the form with the property appraiser to claim ownership, Shepherd said.
But that isn’t how it works.
“They didn’t understand that they were basically admitting to trespass,” he said.
In 2013, the state Legislature amended Florida’s adverse possession law so that now whenever a property appraiser gets an adverse possession filing, the office notifies the property owner of record that somebody is living on their property. And unless the new inhabitant has paid at least a year’s worth of taxes on the property, their claim isn’t even considered, Shepherd said.
The number of adverse possession filings decreased to 47 in 2014, records show.
Not only did the change in the law help reduce the number of filings, it made it easier for law enforcement to charge a squatter with burglary, trespass or both. Prior to the law change, issues like these were dealt with primarily by the courts.
“We have a little more teeth in it now to do something,” Bullara said.
Usually the properties that are targeted are middle class or upper middle class homes that have been vacant for a while, Bullara said. The cases frequently are concentrated in the southern part of the county where there are numerous empty homes, but squatters can turn up anywhere.
Often, the perpetrators have criminal histories and they frequently damage the home or the possessions inside, Bullara said. Sometimes, drugs are involved.
“We’ve even had a couple where the squatters were the victims,” Bullara said. “Somebody printed a bogus contract for them to rent that location.”
The challenge law enforcement faces in squatter cases is finding the victim, he said. Much of the time, the property owner is a bank based in another city or a family that has moved away or been deployed in the military.
Bullara said the agency monitors a list of people who have a history of moving into houses that don’t belong to them, but most of their tips about squatters come from neighbors or neighborhood associations that notice something suspicious.
“In the case of a house in a neighborhood, somebody at some point is going to figure this out and they’re going to care,” Shepherd said.
That’s how Dan McDonald, a Tampa Police Department officer who acts as a liaison between the office and the homeless, gets tips about squatters as well.
“It’s not epidemic by any means, but we get a few,” he said. “Most of the time it’s just someone looking for a place to live.”
If the person doesn’t leave or want his help — in the case of homeless people, that can mean taking them somewhere to be treated for substance abuse or mental health issues — they are cited with trespassing, McDonald said. Sometimes he calls code enforcement to come out and check the building after a squatter has been removed.
Law enforcement hopes it is getting the county’s squatter problem under control. It’s something deputies “pursue very aggressively,” particularly in District 4, Bullara said.
And numbers show that the stabilizing housing market and tougher laws on squatting have helped recently.
“It’s just a weird sort of perfect storm that allowed this to run rampant,” Shepherd said.