HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- At the 10,000 block of Albury Drive in southwest Houston, there's a house with the lights on, the water running, and a family living inside. But nobody sold them the house, and nobody signed a lease.
They are squatters. And they have been there since January.
"It's not their house that they're stealing," an exasperated Shanequa Garrett, a realtor who represents the homeowners, said.
The house was listed for sale in early January when Amberlyn Prather and her entire family moved in. Prather, who is a fourth-grade teacher at a Houston public school, would not answer the door when we knocked. However, when Garrett filed for eviction, she did show up to court with her partner.
"This is insane," a frustrated Garrett, who says she went to court as a last resource, said.
The homeowners had the house for sale when Prather and her family somehow opened a door, and moved in. Neighbors saw the moving truck and called the police.
"I came out, and I recorded it, and the guy was waving a lease," Goran Stankovic, who lives next door, said.
Stankovic recorded that moment with his cell phone. On it, you can see a man, wearing a blue shirt, showing a piece of paper to police officers. Even though the realtor on site told officers the lease was fake, the police allowed the family to stay.
"If you illegally enter somebody's home without permission and start living there, you are committing a crime," Paul Pilibosian, a Houston attorney who specializes in real estate law, said. "They're trespassing."
Pilibosian says even though squatters are technically breaking the law, police officers are reluctant to just toss people out of a house, especially if it appears they are living there.
"They are not a judge and a jury. So they are not in a position to make a judgment call that, 'Well, this person is telling me the truth, and this person's lying.' So at that point, it would be a civil matter," Pilibosian said.
The civil eviction process is faster than a criminal trial, but, Pilibosian warns, "If you've got a professional squatter who knows the system, they can string that process along."
That's what realtor George Huntoon found out firsthand.
"The guy was murdered right here," he said, pointing to a corner of the backyard without any sarcasm the day ABC13 walked through a west Houston home with him. "The (squatters) leave the food everywhere, and then the flies come, and then the sewage. They're using the bathroom in the house or in buckets."
Several years ago, Huntoon was hired to sell the house when the elderly lady who owns the house moved to a senior living facility. However, squatters moved in, and would not leave. Trash, pills, and needles all piled up, and so did the horror stories from neighbors.
"One day, I was in the yard watering after the guy got killed, and a guy walked up to me and said he was a neighbor and ended up he was undercover SWAT Narcotics for Houston," Adam Holtzman, who lives next door, recalled. He's waited patiently as wave after wave of squatters moved in, each seeming worse than the next. "The most the scariest thing has been the fear of them burning down themselves. They burned their fence once."
After more than two years of legal wrangling, Huntoon recently got police to arrest some of the squatters for trespassing. Huntoon quickly swooped in with workers and began cleaning everything out. He then boarded up the house and was working quickly to get it sold and closed.
"In my 25 years of real estate, this probably is the most extreme case," Huntoon said.
While there are eviction cases that go through Harris County Justice of the Peace courts daily, the exact number on how many are squatter cases are hard to pin down. That's because whether you're a squatter who never paid a dime in rent or someone who may be having a legitimate lease dispute, records all show the cases as evictions. Each situation is unique.
Riana Sherman never thought she would have to deal with a squatter.
"It was a huge deal, caused a lot of tears, a lot of anger, a lot of confusion," she said.
With a Houston-based business and two kids in school, Sherman's family recently sold their Sugar Land home and bought what they thought would be their dream house in Meyerland. A week before their move-in date, Sherman went to visit their future home and found bedding, clothing, and even bags of marijuana. Squatters had moved in.
"Constables came out. The people that are there showed them a lease, whatever that says, and didn't kick them out," she recalls. Sherman and her family pulled their contract and had to live in an Airbnb for several months before finding another home.
"It is depressing," said Pilibosian, "but unfortunately, under the law, the only way to remove somebody from your home if the police won't do it for you legally is to evict them."
And that's what Garrett was forced to do. On May 23, after months of legal wrangling and delayed court dates, Prather and her partner showed up in court. They told the judge that they had a lease. However, the judge did not buy their story and ruled that everyone in the house will have to leave at the end of the month.
Neither Prather nor her partner, who both attended the eviction hearing, spoke to ABC13.
"It's a relief," said Garrett, who brought documents and records to show the judge the home was never for rent, and nobody ever paid the homeowners any money.
Prather could appeal the eviction within five days. If she decides to proceed with an appeal, the case could drag on for months longer.
If you find yourself in such a predicament, what can you do? Pilibosian says prevention is the most important. He suggests that if you own a home that will be empty for some time, make sure you post no trespassing signs. Make sure your alarm permit is up to date, and install security cameras inside.
Pilibosian says it's crucial that homeowners actually check their cameras, and call police right away if someone is breaking in. It's much easier for authorities to move someone out of a house before they appear "settled in" to a home.
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