Friday, June 10, 2016 | 2 a.m.
When squatters go to the North Las Vegas Utilities Department to get the water turned on at their house, they show a signed lease as proof that the home is theirs. The document is bogus, of course, and sometimes it doesn’t take long for the department's staff to spot its flaws.
The owner of record’s name is misspelled or wrong altogether, or the landlord’s signature looks like the renter’s. The tenant might indicate that he sends rent checks to the rental house itself, or list his own phone number as the landlord’s.
City officials call that number to verify the lease, but a cellphone nearby — the squatter's — starts ringing.
“Sometimes, they get embarrassed and won’t even pick it up,” says business services manager Romina Wilson. “It’s funny. You can tell.”
Like the rest of the valley, North Las Vegas is grappling with a squatter problem around the city, fueled by the region’s big inventory of empty houses — many of which were abandoned by people with steep financial problems when the economy crashed — and the now-widespread use of bogus leases.
Local government agencies have taken different steps the past few years to clear squatters or prevent them from moving in. North Las Vegas, arguably more prone to squatters than much of Southern Nevada, is using a multipronged approach: Police, code enforcement and utilities officials say they’re working together and using paperwork traps to spot fake rental contracts and push squatters out.
“We’re working as one to put it together, because without that, we’d be out there spinning our wheels,” said Officer Scott Vaughn, who leads the police department’s squatter enforcement.
By all accounts, it’s not too difficult to find an abandoned home in the valley to squat in, and it’s even easier to draw up a bogus lease. Vaughn has heard that someone locally is even teaching classes on how to squat in houses.
And like the rest of the valley, there’s no shortage of homes for city officials to target.
Through April 21, in the first four weeks or so that some officers spent the bulk of their time targeting squatters, North Las Vegas police cleared out some 55 houses and made four arrests, Vaughn said. Officers have been visiting six to 10 suspected squatter homes per week.
Squatters move to nice and run-down houses, come from “every walk of life” and target neighborhoods city-wide, according to Vaughn.
“It looks like a shotgun blast on a map — it’s everywhere,” he said.
That includes Reliant Street, near the intersection of Lone Mountain Road and Allen Lane, where two vacant homes — next door to each other, no less — were occupied by squatters in recent months.
A woman and her five children lived in an abandoned two-story house for eight months, and they had no water service over their last two months, Vaughn said. Officers cleared the house in May, and a children's bicycle, furniture, a barbecue, a mop, water bottles, an open box of Pop-Tarts and other items were still inside on a recent visit.
The prior occupant — apparently the owner — left furniture and other belongings when she moved out. The squatter, who showed up one day in a U-Haul truck and said she had rented the place, held two garage sales with the property.
The squatter became a nightmare of sorts: She got into confrontations with neighbors, sent her kids with buckets or jugs to steal water from neighbors’ hose bibbs, and ran an extension cord to the squatter house next door to get power.
Susan Ragsdel, who lives across the street, said the kids would hang out on the roof and were in the neighborhood “a lot” during the day.
“They weren’t in school very much,” she said.
Squatters in the one-story house next door apparently knew the woman in the other home, Vaughn said. But a few months ago, after staying there for just two weeks, the group left when neighbors confronted them and called the police.
Both houses are a mess inside, and Clark County records show they’re still owned by people who bought them during the bubble years. They’ve been abandoned for quite a while, too.
According to Ragsdel, the larger house has been vacant for two or three years, the smaller house for five years.
• • •
Southern Nevada’s once-battered housing market is on stronger footing today, but it’s still ripe for squatting.
Some 2.1 percent of Las Vegas-area homes, or 13,850 properties, are vacant, compared to 1.6 percent of U.S. homes, according to foreclosure-tracking firm RealtyTrac.
Metro Police have said they received at least 4,458 squatter-related service calls in Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County last year, more than double the tally in 2012.
Squatter homes can become dens of drug use, weapons, fraud labs, child neglect or other criminal activity, police say, and the occupants often are ex-cons.
“We’re finding hardcore felons, serious criminals in these houses,” said Officer Ann Cavaricci, North Las Vegas police spokeswoman.
Government agencies are trying to crack down.
Metro, which oversees the bulk of Clark County, does not have a dedicated squatter unit, but some of its officers pushed for an anti-squatter law. Assembly Bill 386, approved by the state Legislature last year, 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, and unlawful occupancy, or moving to an empty home knowing you don’t have permission to be there.
Las Vegas city officials recently launched a pilot program to board up abandoned houses with a sheet plastic made of polycarbonate, a supposedly unbreakable alternative to plywood. Also, Henderson Police have teamed with the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors to create forms for landlords to fill out, to show who owns a squatter house and whether the occupants signed a lease with the actual owners, in the hope that the documents would help police more efficiently target squatters.
By 2014, North Las Vegas City Councilwoman Anita Wood was hearing complaints about squatters from constituents. She didn't hear much about the issue when she joined the council in 2009 — but then again, she noted, people didn’t realize how long the valley’s empty houses would sit vacant and ignored.
The squatter problem, she says, “was more prolific than we realized.”
At a city council meeting in May 2014, she proposed creating a task force to target squatters. The group has come up with a series of tactics, including:
If someone tries to get the water turned on at a house listed in North Las Vegas’ foreclosure registry — comprising homes that were hit with default notices — utilities officials are automatically alerted. They then give the application closer scrutiny and try to contact the owner of record.
The city doesn’t start water service until officials can verify the lease is real, utilities director Randy DeVaul said.
Another tactic: Code-enforcement officers, working with police, pull property records to see if the landlord’s name and signature on the squatter’s lease matches the real owner’s.
When police knock on the door of a suspected squatter house, someone often answers with a rental contract in hand that contains the real owner’s name — easily obtained by searching the Clark County Assessor’s website.
Code-enforcement officer Matt Meanea said squatters had used so many identical tactics that he looked online to see if someone posted step-by-step instructions, “because that’s what it feels like.”
Squatters are neither new nor unique to North Las Vegas or the valley at large. But when Joe Forti was on the city’s police force, squatters hadn’t moved throughout town and made homes, well, their homes.
A former North Las Vegas police chief, Forti joined the department in 1980 and retired in 2010. He said he didn’t see squatters until the mid-1980s, and most were people breaking into empty houses in low-income neighborhoods to use or sell drugs, or vagrants looking for a place to sleep.
Fake leases surfaced about 15 years ago but were rare at the time, he said. Also, many vacant homes were rental properties owned by local residents, and getting in touch with them seemed relatively easy, according to Forti.
Today, when dealing with abandoned houses, it can be difficult to track down the owners, many of whom left the valley when the economy collapsed, or to untangle the mess of foreclosure, bankruptcy, county recorder or other filings to figure out who owns the home.
“You don’t even know which bank or mortgage company owns them anymore,” Forti said.
• • •
When Southern Nevada was ground zero for the real estate bubble last decade, North Las Vegas was one of the fastest-growing cities in America. But when the market crashed, the valley was one of the hardest-hit areas in the nation, and in some ways North Las Vegas was pummeled the hardest here.
The city declared a financial emergency, its bonds fell to junk status and its housing woes were especially severe.
Some 31 percent of U.S. homeowners with mortgages were underwater, meaning their debt outweighed their home's value, by early 2012, the peak rate nationally. But 71 percent of Southern Nevada borrowers were upside-down at the time — and in North Las Vegas, about 81 percent were underwater, according to home-listing service Zillow.
At times in 2008 and 2009, lenders filed more than 1,000 default notices a month against homes in North Las Vegas and repossessed more than 500 homes monthly, according to RealtyTrac.
People broke into vacant homes to use drugs or party, and though squatting became more frequent during the recession, it was “kind of a trickle in the beginning,” said Cavaricci, the police spokeswoman.
But with thousands of empty homes littering the valley, squatters had plenty of options if they wanted to live somewhere for free, and a black market began to take shape, according to police and real estate pros.
People would break into a house, change the locks, draw up a fake lease — something to show a cop or real estate agent if they stopped by — and “rent” it out, often through Craigslist. Stories abound of squatters meeting their “landlord” at a convenience-store parking lot to pay their rent in cash.
Before the new anti-squatter law took effect, police could charge squatters with trespassing or lodging without the owner’s consent, both misdemeanors. But with suspected squatters furnishing lease agreements, officers typically treated the cases as landlord-tenant disputes to be hashed out in civil courts. At least once, squatters even obtained court approval to stay put, Metro officers have said.
“People started figuring out that they could do this, that they could give us a fake lease and we couldn’t really do a whole lot about it,” Cavaricci said.
Meanwhile, many squatters have tried to get paid to leave the house they're squatting in. At least in North Las Vegas, they have often told police that they want “cash for keys" — they’ll leave if someone pays them for rental money they say they shelled out.
As Vaughn puts it, that program — or at least the hope of getting paid through it — has helped create “the monster that we have.”
Under a typical cash-for-keys program, lenders pay financially strapped homeowners to move out. However, it’s solely for the owner of record, not for anyone who happens to be living in the house, said Nevada Bankers Association CEO Phyllis Gurgevich.
She said it seems like people are collecting money from squatters to get them into an abandoned home, and then telling them a bank will pay them to move out at some point.
Squatters won’t get paid to leave, Gurgevich said, “but you might be arrested.”
All told, it’s possible that some squatters have been duped into renting a home that wasn’t theirs to occupy, Vaughn said. But after clearing dozens of properties across the city, he said he hadn’t met one person who was victimized in moving to an abandoned house.
“I just haven’t found that yet,” he said.