Lawmakers strive for stronger protection for homeowners from squatters

Posted Tuesday, Mar. 12, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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FORT WORTH -- Tarrant County cracked down on squatters years ago, after millions of dollars in abandoned homes was being claimed by potential owners taking advantage of an arcane law.

Now state lawmakers are stepping in, trying to make sure there's not another outbreak of Texans taking advantage of an obscure "adverse possession" clause in the law, helping them gain costly homes and land at little expense.

"This legislation addresses the problems several North Texas communities have experienced with transients moving into foreclosed homes in their neighborhood with the goal of taking over possession of the property under an archaic adverse possession law," said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who has filed Senate Bill 947.

The problem was discovered locally a few years ago, after dozens of affidavits were filed with the Tarrant County clerk's office, seeking ownership of more than $8 million worth of abandoned homes - including property belonging to widows and people seeking cancer treatments in other parts of the state.

Under state law, people are legally able to claim ownership of abandoned properties when they file affidavits of adverse possession, as long as they agree to maintain the property and pay taxes on it. The affidavits cost $16 to file.

Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon weighed in on the issue in November 2011, instructing the county clerk's office to stop accepting the affidavits and asking law enforcers to be aware of the squatters and to feel free to pursue criminal action against them.

Since then, nine people have been charged related to these cases: eight have had their cases disposed and one is still pending, Tarrant County records show.

The first "squatter" convicted of a felony in Tarrant County for crimes stemming from an adverse possession court filing was David Cooper of DeSoto, who was convicted of first-degree theft and burglary in November 2012. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail, a $10,000 fine and 10 years of probation.

Nelson's bill, which has been filed but not yet sent to committee, stipulates that an affidavit of adverse possession is not the same as a title and that anyone trying to stake claim to a property this way must send written proof of their intent to the last known address of every person who holds an interest in the property.

The measure also states that a county clerk may not accept an affidavit of adverse possession if all the requirements aren't met.

"This bill simply states what a reasonable person would expect - that property does not convey simply by squatting," Nelson said.

Shannon said he realizes the bill is a work-in-progress and could be revamped during committee process.

"As the final product gets near, we may have a comment," he said.

Tarrant County Clerk Mary Louise Garcia noted that Nelson is working with the County and District Clerk's Association of Texas on this bill, saying she hopes it will ensure there is "new language that will protect property owners from attempted fraudulent adverse possession filings."

Anna M. Tinsley, (817) 390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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