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April 25, 2017

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The Legislature:

As squatting problem grows in Las Vegas, lawmaker offers solution

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Steve Marcus

Police officers peek into a vacant North Las Vegas home that had been occupied by squatters, Wednesday, May 18, 2016. A new legislative measure aims to help authorities combat squatters.

CARSON CITY — In August 2016, a Las Vegas property manager showed up at a vacant home where squatters had been reported and saw two people run out the back door.

Two hours later, somebody drove by and fired 28 rounds from an assault rifle into the property.

It was no coincidence, said Metro Police Lt. Nick Farese, nor was it particularly uncommon. Speaking in support of a legislative bill aimed at reducing squatting by adding new requirements for lease agreements, Farese on Monday recounted a number of criminal acts involving squatters in recent years. Fatal shootings, arson, identity theft and drug crimes were on the list.

“There’s a direct correlation between people squatting but also committing other crimes,” Farese said. “This (squatting) is a gateway crime.”

But for authorities, removing squatters isn’t as easy as telling them to get out. In many cases, Farese said, people living in homes without authorization had presented officers with fake leases that they either drafted or received from scammers claiming to be representatives of the property owners.

When that happens, it takes Metro investigators time to find the legitimate owner and sort out whether the lease is legitimate.

“It may be two days, two weeks or two months,” Farese said.

The bill, introduced by Assemblyman Edgar Flores, D-Las Vegas, would give police a way to cut to the quick. It would require leases on single-family homes to be notarized and to contain contact information for the landlord or property agent. Any lease not meeting those standards would be presumed to be false unless someone came forward to prove that it was legitimate.

Here are three key things to know about the proposal:

1. It builds on a key step taken during the last session

In 2015, Flores spearheaded a bill making squatting a specific crime, whereas authorities previously had to charge offenders with the low-level crime of criminal trespassing. Today, a first conviction for squatting is a gross misdemeanor, with subsequent convictions being felonies.

Thanks to that legislation, Metro’s arrests are climbing. But there’s a long way to go.

“We’re convicting individuals for the act of squatting, but we’re having a difficult time getting them out of the home because they’re producing fake leases,” Flores said.

2. It’s aimed at a problem that is widespread — and growing

Flores’ new bill drew support from a range of cities and counties — including Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, Henderson and Clark County — as well as the Nevada League of Cities and Municipalities and the Nevada Bankers Association.

No wonder, because Farese presented a map showing that reports of squatters came from across the metro area. Police received 5,394 complaints about squatting in 2016 — an average of 16 a day. That’s up from roughly 3,000 calls in 2014.

“This is affecting the entire valley,” Farese said. “There’s $600 million in property that is essentially being held hostage.”

3. It may require some finessing

Flores acknowledged that he’d fielded concerns about the bill from realty professionals and property agents, who felt the requirements would be burdensome.

He said he was working to address those concerns. He stressed that property owners would not be penalized in cases where leases were not notarized. The intent of the bill, he said, was strictly to give law enforcement officers a way to quickly determine the authenticity of a lease by contacting a notary or a landlord.

Other concerns included whether mobile homes and other manufacturing should be included, and how the new requirements would affect electronic lease signing.

But given the breadth of the problem, Flores said he was hoping to fine-tune the bill.

“This gives law enforcement an immediate tool to use,” he said. “They can immediately take action.”

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