Las Vegas Sun

September 19, 2019

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What will it take to quell Las Vegas’ squatter problem?


Steve Marcus

The interior of a vacant home near Viking Road and Eastern Avenue Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016. The home has been damaged by squatters and teens who break in to have parties.

Construction is up and running, unemployment is down significantly, visitor volume has rebounded and the population is on the rise. Signs of Las Vegas’ recovery from the recession are everywhere.

But so are some of the ugliest leftovers of the city’s economic crash.

Those would be squatter homes — residences that were abandoned by their owners during the recession and have been unlawfully taken over by individuals who either can’t pay for their own housing or choose not to. Although some squatters are families who otherwise wouldn’t break the law and are merely down on their luck, many of them are criminals and vagrants who pose a significant public safety risk.

And they’re practically everywhere in the community. As one local official put it, if you marked all of the squatter homes in the valley on a map with a dot, the result would look like a shotgun blast. Metro Police took more than 5,000 squatter-related calls last year.

But after years of trying and failing to get a handle on the problem, local officials are offering glimmers of hope for local residents who have dealt with squatter properties in their neighborhoods and want action.

Among the positive developments: Clark County commissioners on Tuesday directed staff to start working on ways to improve nuisance ordinances and deal with noncompliant property owners. Meanwhile, Commissioners Chris Giunchigliani and Marilyn Kirkpatrick are arranging for county officials to meet with code enforcement administrators in North Las Vegas who have crafted several successful strategies for dealing with squatter properties, including establishing an electronic database that tracks complaints on properties and makes it easier for the city to take action against noncompliant owners. In a recent interview with the Sun, Giunchigliani said that if the meeting bore fruit, she’d like to bring the cities of Las Vegas and Henderson into a similar conversation.

“It’s the same problem, no matter what jurisdiction it’s in,” she said.

Finally, Nevada lawmakers have pitched in, crafting anti-squatter measures such as a new law mandating that leases be notarized or signed by a licensed property manager. That bill, which will go into effect July 1, gives officials an enforcement tool against fake leases, which have become increasingly common among squatters and scammers who dupe people into signing them.

Better coordination, less bureaucracy and stiffer laws will all help, but it’s critical for local and state leaders to keep pushing on the issue. Several core problems remain unresolved, including:

• How to reduce a glut of vacant homes. Las Vegas, one of the hardest-hit cities during the recession, ended up with thousands of vacant homes after 2008. Many of them remain empty today, with the banks that foreclosed on them hoping the properties will regain their value and the banks can recoup their investments. County staff will be examining how to speed the process for declaring a property a public nuisance and demolishing it.

• How to deal with unresponsive property managers. It’s a common problem for neighbors of a squatter home: The company that maintains the property reacts slowly, if at all, to complaints, then makes a bare-minimum effort to tend to the home. A solution may lie in the fact that state law requires property managers to hold real estate broker’s licenses, which could be suspended or revoked for failing to take action. A thornier problem is how to address asset managers, companies that oversee homes in foreclosure for financial institutions. They are not required to hold real estate licenses.

• How to prevent squatters from getting utilities. Some utilities require no verification that someone requesting service is an authorized occupant of a home. Some don’t require identification, but simply a method of payment. “I think we need to request our utilities to require identification,” Giunchigliani said. “Why would you turn on water or turn on especially energy without proof that that person has a right to be in that home?”

• What to do with properties that may never be worth selling. When fines for code enforcement violations aren’t paid, local governments attach liens to the properties. In some cases, the properties are worth so little and the amount liens is so high that there’s no financial incentive for the owner to sell them, so they remain vacant and untended. North Las Vegas has made progress on this front by establishing a fee system that doesn’t overload properties with liens.

It’s encouraging to see the county tackling the squatter problem, and Giunchigliani has the right idea in trying to coordinate a multijurisdictional, summit-type conversation.

Squatting is a valleywide epidemic, and what works in one place should be adopted by others.

Nearly 10 years after the recession hit, it’s past time for Las Vegas to get the issue under control.

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