Florida bill to address squatting approved by Senate committee but not without opposition

A proposed bill aimed to protect homeowners from squatters taking over their property is facing opposition from some critics who believe the proposal could cause unintended consequences.

Patti Peeples used her experience after squatters wreaked havoc on her property almost a year ago to advocate for other homeowners, so they don’t have to deal with what she went through.

In March, Peeples discovered strangers living in a rental property she and her business partner were in the process of selling.

“The police arrive and the strangers present the officers, showing a document that they have rented the home,” Peeples testified at a Tuesday committee hearing with Florida senators. “But it was leased by someone you don’t know and in fact, the document is not even signed.”

The women said they were victims of a rental scam, meaning their case would need to go through the civil court system — a process that meant they could not be evicted for weeks.

Senate Bill 888, if passed, would allow homeowners to have law enforcement immediately remove unwanted guests living in a house without the homeowner’s consent.

“You anticipate that the police will arrest them, and you remind yourself to increase your security,” Peeples said. “Wrong. The police will not arrest them. They will not remove them from the premises. In fact, it is you that they will remove from your own house and tell you that they have no jurisdiction.”

RELATED: Florida lawmakers to address squatting after Jacksonville homeowner’s experience that cost her thousands of dollars

The unwelcomed guests remained on Peeple’s property for weeks, which caused conflict between the owners and the occupant.

“I spent 34 days of trauma while watching my home be taken over and destroyed while they terrorized the neighborhood,” Peeples said.

Peeples said the unwanted guests left the home with tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage.

Critics such as Jackson Oberlink with Florida Rising, a group acting on behalf of historically marginalized communities, are concerned that the proposal could cause more issues.

“Displacement without due process is not the answer. This bill creates a loophole for abusive landlords to exploit, allowing them to circumvent the legal system and forcibly remove paying renters from their homes,” Oberlink said.

The bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Keith Perry, noted the bill also has provisions to prevent abuse and allow wrongfully removed renters to receive triple damages and legal fees. Perry also said he’s going to revise the language in the bill.

The bill passed the committee for the second time with a 7-to-1 vote.

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