Senator Doug Steinhardt has introduced legislation that would give homeowners and communities new tools to address squatters who unlawfully occupy dwellings.
Sen. Doug Steinhardt has introduced legislation that would give homeowners and communities new tools to address squatters who unlawfully occupy dwellings. (Pixabay)
“It can be extremely difficult, time-consuming, and expensive for a homeowner to get their property back when it’s occupied by squatters,” said Steinhardt (R-23). “Our legislation would provide law enforcement with new tools to remove squatters quickly and prevent the long-term damage to homes and communities they often cause.”
Under current law, squatting is not a criminal act. It is a civil matter that requires the property owner to file a claim to evict, which often takes years to resolve.
While the slow civil legal process works its way through the court system, squatters often damage the home and destroy or sell any personal property that the owner left inside.
Squatters often fail to adhere to other laws, including leashing dogs and managing trash, leading to public safety and quality of life concerns for neighbors. They don’t respond to code violations for property upkeep since penalties usually target the property owner who is being victimized.
In some cases, squatters defecate and urinate outside the home since there isn’t running water, creating threats to public health as well.
To address these serious concerns, Steinhardt’s new legislation (S-3613) creates three new crimes related to squatting:
- Housebreaking: A person would be guilty of housebreaking if they forcibly enter an uninhabited or vacant dwelling without the permission of the owner with the intent of taking up residence;
- Unlawful occupancy: A person would be guilty of unlawful occupancy if they take up residence in an uninhabited or vacant residence without the permission of the owner; and
- Unlawful reentry: A person would be guilty of unlawful reentry if the property owner has recovered possession of the property from the person through a court order and the person reenters the property without permission.
Each of the new offenses would be a crime of the fourth degree punishable by a term of imprisonment of up to 18 months, a fine of up to $10,000, or both.
The new crimes would only apply to people who never had the right to enter or reside in a home, and could not be used to criminalize families for living in their homes if they have fallen behind on their mortgage and are in the process of foreclosure.
“During the months or years it may take a case to work through the civil court system, squatters can destroy a homeowner’s property and create serious public safety and health concerns for neighbors,” added Steinhardt. “By finally recognizing that squatting is a crime, we can start to hold the criminals who terrorize homeowners and neighborhoods across New Jersey accountable.”
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