Senate hears horror stories over squatting in Texas: 'I still don't live in my house'

Hogan Gore
Austin American-Statesman
Terri Boyette, a Mesquite homeowner, on Wednesday describes her experience of having her home taken over by an unauthorized occupant to the Texas Senate Committee on Local Government. On the right, Rusty Adams, attorney at Texas A&M Real Estate Center, is watching the proceedings.

With a sense of urgency, Texas state senators gathered Wednesday to consider possible changes to the state's property laws, hearing harrowing stories from homeowners who said they lost access to their homes to "squatters."

As per a directive from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, members met to look into the state's laws relating to squatters, which has become a common term for a person who takes adverse possession of a property without having the permission or legal ownership to do so.

Squatting, which in Texas law falls through the policy cracks between criminal trespass and an eviction proceeding, has left homeowners with few options to regain access to their homes in a process marred by confusing legal and financial bureaucracy.

"What we're here for quite simply is to come and take it back," Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said in opening the hearing. "Because that's what we're going to do. We're going to get legislation put together that will come take these properties back from squatters who have no legal or moral ownership, or any other investment in a property."

"We're going to get legislation put together that will come take these properties back from squatters who have no legal or moral ownership, or any other investment in a property," said Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston.

In trying to strike a balance to ensure that rights of homeowners and tenants are respected as lawmakers look to craft a legislative fix for the gray area, Bettencourt said the need to act quickly is spurred by the fact that "people can still lose their homes to squatting in the state of Texas, and that's got to stop."

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The Senate committee hearing lasted throughout Wednesday afternoon as many invited guests gave testimony ranging from housing industry concerns, the judiciary's perspective and homeowners' experiences.

"We have attempted to contact any pro-squatting operation that exists," Bettencourt said. "We have not been able to find anyone willing to testify."

When Terri Boyette began to tell her story, the temperature in the hearing room steadily rose as she described a laundry list of homeowner nightmares. A contractor had broken into her home in Mesquite, just east of Dallas, and then refused to leave, leaving a wake of damage, garbage and narcotics paraphernalia.

"As of today — 11 months later — I still don't live in my house and can't access it because of the damage that was done," Boyette said.

The squatting incident took place shortly after moving to Texas in 2021, leaving Boyette without a place to live and forcing her to stay in Florida, where she traveled from for Wednesday's hearing at the Capitol, as the situation gets resolved.

During the ordeal, Boyette testified, she also had to maintain payments for the property's water, utilities, home insurance and mortgage in addition to keeping the yard trimmed to avoid a city citation.

"As of today — 11 months later — I still don't live in my house and can't access it because of the damage that was done," Terri Boyette told the Senate panel.

"The person in my home is a homeless crackhead; what am I supposed to sue them for? Nothing," Boyette said.

After seven months, Boyette's property was finally vacated, but not before her possessions and family heirlooms were sold off during a rushed yard sale, leaving her with a heavily damaged home where most items were either taken or left destroyed.

"I'm actually afraid to move back in the house, because I don't know what's going to happen," Boyette said, clearly rattled by her situation despite her sense of humor throughout the hearing. "Today, he's out walking on the street. And I'm $150,000 in debt to replace everything in my home and repair it."

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Senate committee members sat in grave attention to Boyette's story, understanding that others in the room, and people across the state, have experienced similar instances of unexpected violations of privacy.

So much so, that during the hearing Sens. Royce West, D-Dallas, and Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, both agreed that they wanted to hear more from local officials in Mesquite about their response to Boyette's situation.

"It makes no sense," Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said of the problems of dealing with squatters.

West, Hall and Boyette then left the hearing to take a phone call with city leaders to discuss their handling of squatters.

"It makes no sense," said West, the lone Democrat present during the committee hearing. "I'm starting to get outraged about that."

While Patrick made the nod to bring the issue to attention via his list of interim charges, which he released last month, Gov. Greg Abbott has also made clear that he is in favor of clarifying and stiffening penalties tied to squatting, calling the act a violation of the law.

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"In Texas, anyone 'squatting' in your home is breaking the law," Abbott posted to X, formerly Twitter, in the weeks before Patrick announced his list of legislative requests. "They are criminals violating TX laws like criminal trespass & criminal mischief (Tex. Penal Code 30.05 & 28.03). Also, the Texas Castle Doctrine empowers Texans to use force to defend themselves & their property."

The Senate Committee on Local Government held a hearing Wednesday to discuss protecting Texas property owners from squatters.

Senators will consider adding increased penalties for squatting, making the act more comparable to criminal trespassing, which would remove the large hurdle of squatting being viewed as a civil matter by the judiciary.

Outside of increasing penalties, senators were in lock step in discussing avenues to ensure law enforcement officers have a way to positively identify who owns or resides in a home in question, identifying documentation requirements for proving residency, having oversight of judicial and police responses in the future and creating a mechanism for homeowners to initiate a removal of a squatter despite protests.

Other states have recently implemented squatting laws, with fixes ranging from Louisiana's increase in penalties that tied burglary and squatting statutes closer together to West Virginia's move to clarify a squatter can't be considered a tenant and is therefore afforded fewer rights to stay in a location.

In Alabama, someone unauthorized to enter a property can be removed by the property owner if they provide law enforcement officers with a sworn affidavit detailing their ownership. The removal of the individual is mandated to occur within 24 hours.

Still months away from being able to consider any proposal dealing with squatters, Sen. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, said the committee is seriously looking at the issue with an intent to move quickly once the legislative session begins in January, saying whether it's a single bill or an omnibus package, Texas is looking to lead the way.

"I think the country will see very quickly how Texas solves this very rapidly next session to protect private property rights in the state and be the role model for how to do it across the country," Parker said.