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October 21, 2017

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County pursues new strategies for squatter problem

Violators of vacant homes may face faster response and more effective fining system

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Steve Marcus

Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani poses in front of a home near Nellis Boulevard and Harmon Avenue Thursday, June 15, 2017. The home is vacant and was previously occupied by squatters.

Chris Giunchigliani’s history with squatters goes back five years, when she confronted one who was illegally occupying a home near a friend of hers in the Paradise Palms neighborhood.

“I said, ‘I’ve confirmed that you don’t reside here, so get your crap out of here now or I’m calling Metro,” said Giunchigliani, a Clark County commissioner since 2007. “He got scared, and he left.”

If only it were that easy to handle all of the valley’s squatters. Instead, the problem has grown in recent years, fueled by homelessness and a glut of homes that have remained vacant since being abandoned during the recession.

County Fights Squatter Problem

Warnings from Clark County code enforcement officers are shown on a vacant home previously occupied by squatters near Nellis Boulevard and Harmon Avenue Thursday, June 15, 2017. Launch slideshow »

Giunchigliani has worked with Nevada lawmakers on bills like one that passed this year requiring leases for single-family residences to be notarized, targeting squatters’ use of fake documents. She’s trying to coordinate discussions between local governments and North Las Vegas code enforcement officials, who have made headway against squatters by creating a registry of vacant properties and establishing an effective fining system. With Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick, Giunchigliani prompted county staff to begin working on strategies to speed up the process for declaring properties a public nuisance and either getting them cleaned up or demolished.

Before addressing the issue in the commission meeting, Giunchigliani sat down for an interview with The Sunday.

Why do you think a regional approach is needed?

You don’t have the finger-pointing, and you don’t just push the problem from one jurisdiction to another. ... I’ve asked Tom (Martens, North Las Vegas code enforcement manager) if he will meet with our county managers, our code people and some of our Metro officers and talk about how they’ve implemented their initiative, and get everybody on the same page.

What is North Las Vegas doing that’s worth emulating?

The banks are still playing the game of not releasing (foreclosed) properties. So the person whose name is still on the assessment as the original property owner, a lot of times we can’t even find or hold liable. But Tom and his team came up with his own registry idea, wrote a mini-program, and his people now have it on laptop. They know if it’s bank-owned or they know who’s responsible for it, and they can send notice off right then if the weeds are too long, the place is not secured, the power’s being stolen. They can get this moving really, really fast.

You’ve said that utilities should be part of the discussion. Why?

We need to direct them, or at least request of them, to require identification for service requests — who’s asking for power and water to turn on. Right now, some of them let you do it right online with no proof that you have legal access to the property, which is ridiculous. Why would you turn on water — or especially energy — without proof that that person has a right to be in that home?

What can homeowners do?

Metro advises not to get in the face of anybody, just write the license plates down and report the activity. But depending on the circumstance, there are certain things you can do to kind of help preempt problems.

Here’s an example: The lady who lives next door to my 89-year-old neighbor went to assisted living, but my neighbor kept seeing people going to the door with a key. She’d come out and introduce herself, and they’d say, “I just rented this place.” And she’d say, “Well, I know it’s not for rent,” and they’d say, “Yes it is — I just rented it from this guy at El Cortez.” And then the key wouldn’t work. One of them told her, “I gave them $350 in cash to rent this.” Eight people in one week came to that house. She called Metro, and they did a sting and arrested him.

Maybe what we need to do is come up with some kind of training for communities: a know-your-rights kind of thing.

You’ve said the process is too slow for dealing with vacant properties. Any examples?

Well, the big one that I got taken down was the casino on Flamingo (Key Largo, which was demolished in 2013). It took five years. Because it was somewhat structurally sound, our building department said there was really no reason for them to have to go in and act. I said it’s more than that: We’ve had two fires, and it’s a nuisance.

So our process is overly cumbersome. I don’t want to take anybody’s property, but if it’s become a nuisance to the neighborhood, we need to speed things up.

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