Tuesday, April 12, 2016 | 2 a.m.
The city of Henderson, according to its website, is “a place to call home.”
Squatters are taking that to heart.
Henderson police have received dozens of service calls since last fall about suspected squatters around the city. They’ve made six arrests.
It’s not the only part of the Las Vegas Valley grappling with squatters. Metro Police said they received at least 4,458 squatter-related service calls in Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County last year, up 24 percent from 2014, 69 percent from 2013 and 169 percent from 2012.
The valley’s squatter problem stems in large part from the foreclosures, layoffs and other financial woes that pummeled the region during the recession. Waves of residents lost their homes to lenders or simply abandoned them, emptying houses valleywide.
The housing market has improved the past few years, but it’s still bogged down by high rates of underwater borrowers and foreclosures, as well as thousands of empty properties, letting squatters occupy homes in low-income, affluent and middle-class areas alike.
All told, some 2.1 percent of Las Vegas-area homes, or about 13,360 properties, are vacant. Nationally, 1.6 percent of homes are empty, according to RealtyTrac.
The Nevada Legislature last year approved Assembly Bill 386 to address the squatter problem. The measure established such criminal offenses as housebreaking, or forcibly entering a vacant home to live there or let someone else move in without the owner’s consent; unlawful occupancy, or moving to an empty home knowing you don’t have permission to be there; and unlawful re-entry, or going back into a house without permission after the owner reclaimed the property.
Violators can face gross misdemeanor or felony charges.
Henderson Police Sgt. Kirk Moore, of the Problem Solving Unit, said the department had received 83 service calls since the law took effect Oct. 1. The six arrests have been for unlawful occupancy, he said.
In some cases, the suspected squatters were gone when officers arrived. In other instances, people were given warnings or cited for trespassing, but more often, the calls were "cleared as OK," said Michelle French, Henderson Police spokeswoman.
The department has teamed with the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors to help police more efficiently target squatters. They created paperwork that would outline, for instance, who owns the house and whether the occupants signed a lease with the owner or a representative. Another form gives police a voluntary consent to search the home.
Moore and Henderson City Councilwoman Debra March, a former director of UNLV’s Lied Institute for Real Estate Studies, spoke with the Sun on Friday at the Orleans, where officials discussed the anti-squatting efforts at a GLVAR membership luncheon.
Can you give an overview of what the GLVAR and Henderson police are doing about squatters?
Moore: The board teamed up with the police department on creating a mechanism that is safe for Realtors to report instances of squatting. If a Realtor takes on a new listing and goes to inspect the house, and if someone’s there, going in and trying to confront a potential squatter is obviously not the safest thing to do. We’re recommending they go back to their office and fill out all the information that we need — showing they have a rightful means to act as an agent for the homeowner, the deed, all the information. It’s kind of lengthy, but it makes it very easy for us to conduct an investigation.
Where in Henderson are the service calls coming from? Are they concentrated in any particular area?
Moore: Not necessarily. Squatting is very opportunistic; it’s wherever the opportunity arises and where they think they can blend in.
Are you seeing newer homes get hit more often, as opposed to the smaller homes in old Henderson?
Moore: It’s nicer homes, not necessarily the older homes.
Councilwoman March, did you ever come across squatters at the Lied Institute when doing market research? Did it ever come up?
March: I don’t think that was as big of an issue then. My tenure there was from 1996 to 2009, so I left at the start of the economic downturn. This is really something that’s tied to the downturn.
When Metro police respond to squatter houses, they often find fraud labs, drugs, pimps, prostitutes, child abuse. Is that what you’re finding in Henderson, as well?
Moore: That’s pretty accurate. There’s a variety of things we usually come across. There’s normally some narcotics involved, and we have come across fraud labs — checks, credit cards, identity theft. And also property, a lot of property from different burglaries. They’re using squatter houses as a safe haven — they store property there until they can off-load it. But through arrests, people are starting to get the word that we’ll arrest you. That’s the biggest thing — word of mouth in their circles that, if they do this, they’ll get arrested.
In Metro’s area commands, police find a lot of squatters with bogus leases — people break into a house, change the locks and draw up a dummy lease using a template from, say, Office Depot, and rent it out through Craigslist. Is that something you’re seeing, as well?
Moore: Absolutely — in almost all the cases. The bogus leases have all sorts of things that are inaccurate. It’s very obvious. It’s the details that they miss.
March: That’s why it’s so important for the property owner or the Realtor to submit the information we need. It gives us the deed, shows us who the owner is, and if they make a statement that they don’t have a lease with these people, it's easier for our police department to go forward and take action.
Anecdotally, what are some of the things in these leases that, when officers see it, they know it’s bogus.
Moore: The numbers don’t match. Some of these homes are worth a couple hundred thousand dollars, so it’s not really reasonable to rent it for $600. That’s not even close to market value. And of course, the physical nature of the leases are just not professional. They’re usually printed off the internet, and they’re using information that may not be completely accurate.
What are some other problems with squatters you’ve heard about from real estate agents?
Moore: They cut the lock-box, and there’s usually some damage from a forced entry. It’s also real obvious they’ve changed the locks — it doesn’t match the rest of the house.