By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING – Squatters who move into single-family homes or duplexes could next be moving into prison cells under a proposal by a suburban Detroit legislator.
Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth, wants to make it a felony to occupy single-family homes worth roughly $100,000 or more or duplexes worth about $200,000 or more without permission. Such homes are generally abandoned or were seized by banks and other lenders through foreclosure.
His bill would set a maximum punishment of five years behind bars and a $10,000 fine.
It excludes illegally occupied condominiums and apartments because landlords and condo associations can handle squatters through normal contract procedures, Heise said.
There are no estimates of the number of squatter-occupied homes in Michigan.
Chuck O’Brien, director of the Macomb Homeless Coalition in Fraser said, “The thing with squatting is you never know unless it’s reported or someone complains.”
As for Heise’s legislation, O’Brien said, “Making it a felony seems like a pretty harsh penalty to me.”
Housing law experts at Michigan State University and University of Detroit Mercy also question the need for the bill.
“It’s creating a solution where there isn’t a problem,” said Joon Sung, director of U-D Mercy’s Foreclosure Defense Clinic. “Perhaps it does happen occasionally, but it’s an unusual situation,” and banks and other owners already have “quite a few procedures to get rid of squatters.”
For example, he said, a bank or other owner of an abandoned house can start a seven-day eviction proceeding against squatters.
Sung and Brian Gilmore, director of MSU’s Housing Law Clinic, said lenders often let foreclosed homes deteriorate.
Gilmore said, “Truth is, if the banks were quickly fixing up the places for rent or sale, no squatter would have a shot” – but that’s not what banks do.
He continued, “The real problem, as we all know, is that Michigan is horrible on affordable housing – that’s even for people who work.”
A study this year by the National Low Income Housing Coalition in Washington ranked Michigan 30th among the states in affordable housing.
According to the study, the average minimum-wage employee in Michigan must spend 80 hours’ pay each month to afford a two-bedroom apartment at “fair market rent.” The report said it would take two full-time members of a household who earn minimum wage to afford such an apartment.
Gilmore also questioned the use of home values to determine whether a squatter commits a felony, saying the values in the bill would exclude many abandoned and foreclosed properties in Detroit, Lansing and other low-income areas.
“Why these houses, why not every house? Gilmore said. “I think they’re protecting more expensive houses.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Steven Bieda, D-Warren, is also drafting squatter-related legislation in consultation with Heise in the House, real estate brokers, banks and local officials.
“I’ve heard of people squatting in Warren and Eastpointe and pretty much all of Macomb County, as well as in Royal Oak and Ferndale in Oakland County,” he said, adding that the extent of squatting shows that current eviction and trespass laws are inadequate.
“We’re trying to come up with some definitions, including what constitutes a squatter. There are all kinds of different situations” – including situations where a squatter pretends to be the owner and rents the property to innocent tenants.
Bieda said he wants to get away from including minimum property values in such legislation. “There’s a reasonableness to that, but maybe it’s not realistic.”
But Heise said the bill’s minimum property values are reasonable and “take into account the vast majority” of squatting situations.
He said the idea for the proposal came from personal observation, “high- profile media reports” and a conversation with Canton Township Treasurer Melissa McLaughlin, who told him about squatters who even set up utility accounts and pay their water, gas and electric bills.
“What is happening more in our area is the squatter is well-versed in the law, either personally or being coached by a homeless rights group or self-proclaimed advocacy group,” he said. “They have to force the true owner to go to court.”
He said, “I want to make sure these properties do not fall into unscrupulous hands. “I’m not trying to harm people who are down on their luck or struggling to make ends meet.”
Heise chairs the House Criminal Justice Committee where the bill is pending. He said he wants to hold a hearing on the measure by the end of October.
Resources for CNS editors: