Squatting is having a moment. Ignore it


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Squatting is having a moment.

Last week, the concept made headlines thanks to a viral TikTok post from Venezuelan national Leonel Moreno, who advised immigrants to “invade” and “seize” empty houses. Moreno’s commentary eventually made headlines in the New York Post, Fox News, KTLA, the Daily Mail and other outlets.

Moreno racked up hundreds of thousands of views before he, apparently, took down the TikTok account he was using to post the videos (other accounts have since popped up, but it’s unclear if they actually belong to Moreno). But even as Moreno’s 15 minutes of fame appear to be waning, squatting has sparked the imagination — and fears — of people across the U.S. Headlines about the squatters abound, social media posts document local cases, and famous figures weigh in. TV newsmagazine Inside Edition summed up the prevailing sentiment last week by claiming that “there’s been an explosion of squatting cases” lately.

As they say online, that’s big, if true. A horde of squatters racing to take over homes across the U.S. would be a major menace to the country generally, and would spell trouble for real estate professionals in particular.

However, upon closer inspection it’s hard to find any hard evidence that squatting is actually is “exploding.” That’s because data on the topic is virtually nonexistent. That doesn’t mean there aren’t challenging individual cases, and of course the concept of property rights generally makes for worthwhile debates. But despite alarmist headlines, there does not appear to be evidence that squatting is a growing trend that Americans need to fear en masse.

Data is alarmingly scant

Though it’s easy to find headlines on squatting, it’s much more difficult to find numbers. Squatting is not tracked in widely used crime databases such as those produced by the FBI or the Public Policy Institute of California.

One of the few figures on the topic that does tend to show up in commentary on the issue is the claim that squatters currently occupy about 1,200 homes in metro Atlanta. Bloomberg used the figure in January, attributing it to the National Rental Home Council. Realtor.com used it in February with the same attribution. Numerous other stories over the past three months have similarly mentioned this figure, some with attribution and others without.

Inman reached out to the National Rental Home Council twice last week hoping to get more information about this datapoint, but did not hear back. As a result, it’s difficult to know how exactly this figure was compiled, or if it says anything about other metro areas. (Bloomberg’s report states that the Atlanta number represents “far more” squatting cases “than in any other U.S. metro area tracked by the council.”)

More critically, even if that figure is correct, it says nothing about change over time. In other words, knowing that there are 1,200 incidents of squatting now does not indicate if the problem is getting worse or better. And so it offers essentially no evidence to support the widespread thesis that squatting is “exploding.”

Frustrated by the apparent lack of hard evidence, Inman turned to Google Trends to see if the topic has been getting more attention online — something that might hint at a rising number of cases. Here’s what the graph on Google searches that looks like:

Google Trends shows that, when looking at the last year, there has indeed been a recent spike in U.S. web searches regarding squatting.

However, the timing of the spike coincides with a number of viral news stories and social media posts about squatting. And prior to that spike, searches were generally holding steady or trending down.

That, also, is not empirically conclusive evidence. But it sure does seem like if squatting was “exploding,” the topic would have been subject to a more gradual rise in Google searches over a longer period of time. After all, what seems like the more logical explanation here: Thousands of property owners all simultaneously discovered they had squatters around March 10 and began Googling solutions? Or a few viral cases sparked a few viral news stories, and suddenly a lot of people started Googling the topic because it hadn’t previously been on their radars?

Stories galore

So what is going on?

One possibility is that squatting makes for a good story. Earlier in March, for example, Curbed ran a rip-roaring yarn about people squatting in a ritzy house in the famous 90210 area code.

Other recent tales of squatting have received less literary treatments, but are at their core basically human interest stories. There is, for example, the recent viral story of a woman who was arrested for trying to expel squatters from a home she owns and was trying to sell in Queens, New York. Social media is similarly rife with anecdotal stories about squatters that appear to go viral because they capture emotionally (and legally) charged episodes.

Useful politics

Another possible (and more cynical) explanation for the surge in online discourse about squatting is that it fits into a larger and politically charged debate about the rule of law.

Over the weekend, for example, Elon Musk shared a New York Post story on X — the social network formerly known as Twitter — about how-to squatting guides on Reddit. “Your home is no longer your home in many states,” Musk wrote, seeming to parrot the common “exploding” thesis.

Even as Musk shared the story, though, some observers have raised the alarm that the mogul has demonstrated a growing preoccupation with fringe politics and conspiracy theories, including some with racist origins — which potentially intersects with an interest in squatters taking over private property.

Also in a political vein, star attorney Jonathan Turley made argued in a piece for USA Today last year that “the nuisance of squatters moving into a home reflects a breakdown in basic deterrence of our laws.” Turley offered numerous anecdotal tales of squatting in his piece, but no data.

Against this backdrop, the U.S. has lately been debating the existence of a general crime wave. The debate has tended to fall along partisan lines, with Democrats arguing that law-breaking is near historic lows while Republicans point to recent spikes in things like property crime.

In reality, both sides are at least partially right; FBI data shows that violent crime has risen only very slightly from mid 2010s. At the same time, property crime has seen a recent spike, though it remains below historic levels.

Screen Shot 2024 03 22 at 5.30.40 PM

Credit: FBI

The point here is not to get bogged down in the details of data on crime.

Rather, it’s merely to point out that news stories — often from outlets such as the New York Post that have turned fear-mongering into an art form — are not emerging in a vacuum.

Fear not

One thing that many stories on squatting do point out is that every U.S. state has laws regarding the takeover of property. These rules — known as adverse possession laws — vary from place to place, but generally give a person the ability to legally take possession of a home. However, doing so typically takes years, can only legally happen if the owner hasn’t attempted eviction, and often require squatters to pay for things like utilities or property taxes.

Few recent media cases on squatting focus on people who are attempting to take possession of a property via an adverse possession law. More commonly, squatters have simply taken over a home and are resisting eviction, which in some cases has become more difficult to do in the wake of various eviction moratoriums.

Turley, the lawyer, has argued that such property crime has been “downgraded” as a priority, and he may be right to call attention to the issue or to urge a debate about property rights.

But at least for the time being, there just doesn’t appear to be a lot of evidence that squatting is taking the nation by storm.

Email Jim Dalrymple II

As a real estate professionals, have you had experiences with squatters? Tell us in the comments below.





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