© 2024 | WUWF Public Media
11000 University Parkway
Pensacola, FL 32514
850 474-2787
NPR for Florida's Great Northwest
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Concerns remain over Florida bill that would harshen penalties for squatters

The image shows an empty room in an abandoned hospital.
andipantz/Getty Images
The image shows an empty room in an abandoned hospital.

A pair of bills that would make it easier for Florida's property owners to evict squatters is moving toward a vote by the full House and Senate.

The legislation would create a new process to remove people who are temporarily living in a home or an apartment, without a lease and against the will of the owner.

Under the bills, the sheriff’s office would be allowed to immediately remove people, at their discretion and without a court hearing, if a property owner submits a sworn complaint. It would also create new criminal penalties, according to an analysis of the bills.

Throughout the committee process, concerns have been raised about whether the new rules could be unfairly used against renters.

READ MORE: A proposed bill could have unintended consequences for renters in Florida

Cynthia Laurent, Florida Rising housing justice campaigner, said she is worried that bad-acting landlords might treat the legislation as a shortcut to evicting renters rather than squatters.

“We see the language that says it’s limited to folks who are staying in the property against the will of the owner,” she said. “But what we know to be true is that a process that’s so expedited won’t even allow a person the time to verify that they’re authorized to be there.”

According to the House bill text, the sheriff’s office must solely verify the person that submitted the complaint is the property owner.

“Let's assume that I rent a unit from somebody and the lease has expired … would this apply to me? Would I be considered a squatter under that scenario?” Rep. Mike Gottlieb (D-Davie) asked during a House Judiciary Committee hearing last week.

In response, House bill sponsor Rep. Kevin Steele (R-Dade City) said that it would depend on the lease agreement outlined between landlord and tenant.

While that’s not the bill’s intention – the proposal was inspired by one Jacksonville woman’s experience finding squatters in her home – other lawmakers have cited concerns over who the legislation might apply to.

Florida House Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson (D-Gainesville) echoed these concerns during the bill’s final committee hearing.

“I see the problem on both sides. I do understand squatters – I would not want to go back home to find that. Likewise, I wouldn’t want to be out here and be evicted without a right to hearing,” Hinson said. “But there are experts that can help you find neutrality for this when it comes to the floor.”

Attorney Kevin Rabin, with Three Rivers Legal Services, said he’s glad to see that the language in the bills have been significantly narrowed over the past month.

“This bill now appears much more tailored to address only that set of circumstances, and not the wide, broad, sweeping original pronouncement,” Rabin said.

While some concerns remain over misapplication of the legislation, he said several legal protections have been added to the proposals.

According to the bill text, people who are wrongfully removed – like a current or former tenant – would have the right to sue the property owner to return possession of the property and collect money for damages, court costs, and fees.

“We also put in guardrails to make sure that people who should be there are not removed, and so with that I ask for your favorable support,” bill sponsor Sen. Keith Perry (R-Gainesville) said in a closing argument on Monday.

The Senate bill, SB 888, passed its final committee on Feb. 26. Its companion in the House, HB 621, passed its respective committees earlier this month.

Gabriella Paul covers the stories of people living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region for WUSF. She's also a Report for America corps member. Here’s how you can share your story with her.
Copyright 2024 WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF 89.7.

Gabriella Paul