AUSTIN — The Texas Senate unanimously passed legislation Thursday to crack down on squatters who claim ownership of foreclosed homes through an obscure practice known as “adverse possession.”The bill tackling a problem that has been particularly prevalent in North Texas, Senate Bill 947 by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, was sent to the House after passing without debate on the Senate’s local and consent calendar.Nelson, chairwoman of the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee, said she filed the bill “in response to reports of individuals in North Texas ‘squatting’ in foreclosed or abandoned homes and then trying to take ownership through claims of adverse possession — a practice that should not be tolerated.”The bill affirms that adverse-possession claims are not a defense against burglary.“This bill will give prosecutors the tools they need to confront these individuals,” Nelson said.Adverse possession — often described as squatters’ rights — has been generally defined as a process by which someone lays claim to property that appears abandoned by the owner. It was intended to settle land disputes.Adverse-possession claims emerged in North Texas several years ago after dozens of affidavits were filed with the Tarrant County clerk’s office.The affidavits sought ownership of more than $8 million worth of abandoned homes — including property belonging to widows and people seeking cancer treatment in other parts of the state.Applicants claimed that state civil law allows them to take over abandoned property through adverse possession as long as they agree to maintain the property and pay taxes on it. The affidavits cost $16 to file.A legislative analysis of Nelson’s bill calls adverse possession “a useful tool to resolve disputed property boundaries or to cultivate truly abandoned rural property” but says “some people in suburban areas of the state have tried to frivolously apply the law to steal homes when residents temporarily leave them vacant.”Tarrant County Clerk Mary Louise Garcia said Nelson’s bill would give the state’s district attorneys the option to file burglary charges against someone who takes over a house by citing the adverse-possession doctrine.“You’ve can’t cloak yourself in that law,” she said. “It is not a defense to criminal prosecution.”Garcia said her office received roughly 50 applications. Although the practice stopped in Tarrant County in 2011, she said, it has spread to smaller counties.“They believed they had a right under this obscure real estate law to literally go and take over these homes,” she said. Nelson’s bill, she said, would give county clerks and district attorneys “the opportunity to address this.”The one-page bill states that it “is not a defense to prosecution … that the actor is attempting to take ownership of the real property through adverse possession or a claim of adverse possession unless the actor has full title” to the property.The measure would become law Sept. 1 if passed by both chambers of the Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Perry.Assistant Tarrant County District Attorney David Lobingier said prosecutors are empowered to seek burglary charges in adverse-possession claims but added that the Nelson bill would “clarify” that authority.Lobingier has obtained around eight or nine convictions in adverse-possession claims. He is believed to be the only prosecutor in Texas who has pursued criminal charges in such cases.“We’ve stopped it up here,” he said, “and I hope we’ll be able to stop it throughout the rest of the state.”A burglary conviction can result in a maximum of 20 years in prison, Lobingier said. Theft of property valued over $200,000 could result in a life sentence, he said.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’ probation.Other cases resulted in guilty pleas, Lobingier said. This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram’s Austin Bureau chief. 512-739-4471 Twitter: @daveymontgomery