ABC13's years of Houston-area squatter stories leads to first steps in Austin to bolster laws

Miya Shay Image
Wednesday, May 15, 2024
ABC13's years of squatter stories leads to action in Austin
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt is presiding over hearings in Austin on Wednesday aimed at strengthen anti-squatting laws that were mainly civil matters.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The sound of construction equipment at a house on the 6300 block of Costa Mesa is music to the ears of long-time neighbor Jethro Cooper.

The southwest Houston house sat empty for years, and a mix of teenagers after school, squatters, and a fire left the home as a community eyesore.

"Thank you for your effort in trying to bring it to their attention," Cooper told ABC13 on Tuesday, about two weeks after Eyewitness News first noted problems with the house. "Now, since you brought it to their attention, they're doing something about it."

SEE MORE: Houston homes taken over by squatters leave owners, neighbors frustrated by legalities

However, Cooper knows one repair project on this house is insufficient to solve the more significant problem of homes in bad shape or occupied by squatters proliferating neighborhoods.

"We need help," he said, noting that efforts to get the house torn down have gone nowhere, and chasing out drug users and others who may squat in the house offered temporary relief.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, promised, "We're going to put this all together and fix it."

Bettencourt is leading the Texas Senate's initiative to improve the state's squatter laws.

Generally speaking, squatter situations in Texas are considered civil matters, and it is challenging to get squatters out of a home without going through the tedious eviction process. In addition, Texas has strong property rights laws, so demolishing abandoned or dilapidated homes is also a prolonged problem.

Bettencourt said he has seen reports of these issues across the state, including the cases ABC13 highlighted over the past year.

"I've seen horror stories about squatting - some of your good work - all across the state. So, we're bringing everyone in to talk about what we can do to stop squatting," he said.

On Wednesday, Bettencourt is holding a hearing in Austin with an eye on passing bills next year to make it easier to push out squatters by increasing criminal penalties and giving law enforcement more tools.

"It's just part of the times, but that doesn't mean it's acceptable. It shouldn't be tolerated. It's illegal, and we're going to make it a lot more illegal once we get bills passed in the next legislative session," he said.

"I think anything to help the person who is the victim is needed," Riana Sherman, one of the squatting victims ABC13 first profiled in 2023, said. "When our situation happened, we called this person, we called that person for help, and nobody was able to help because the person who was squatting had a lease that was not a real lease."

Sherman and her family were under contract to buy a house in Houston's Meyerland area but had to pull out because squatters moved in and stayed.

She said her children were traumatized, and she lost thousands of dollars in the process.

"Am I hopeful? I always try to see the good in situations. I always like to be hopeful," Sherman said, reacting to the possibility of new laws passing.

The Texas Legislature will convene next January. ABC13 will keep you updated on whether the state's squatter laws will be refreshed to address the problem plaguing homeowners.

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RELATED: Woman claims trespassers moved into her Meyerland rental home and changed her locks

The Meyerland homeowner reached out to ABC13 extremely frustrated, saying a family of five is refusing to leave her rental home after changing its locks.