Bradley amendment seeks to give property owners faster action to get rid of squatters

Holly Ramer/AP file photo

By SRUTHI GOPALAKRISHNAN

Monitor staff

Published: 05-13-2024 5:55 PM

Taking cues from other states, New Hampshire lawmakers are pushing for a bill to expedite the eviction of people unlawfully living on private property, but this legislative effort has sparked concerns over its unintended consequences.

“This could inadvertently destabilize housing for people most at risk of homelessness,” said Dawn McKinney, policy director of New Hampshire Legal Assistance.

To evict someone in New Hampshire, a 30-day notice to vacate the property is typically issued. If they refuse to leave after receiving this notice, the matter is taken to court before eviction is enforced.

State Senate President Jeb Bradley’s proposed amendment to House Bill 1400, which was originally centered on parking spaces, would remove a court hearing with a judge and place the decision-making authority in the hands of the sheriff. This law targets squatters, not tenants. Squatters are individuals who unlawfully occupy or live in vacant or unused properties, often without the owner’s permission.

Since the amendment was proposed, New Hampshire Legal Assistance and other groups have been working on another version of his amendment. It calls for an expedited hearing within 48 hours and a quick eviction process that doesn’t take the homeowner weeks, if not months, before they can recover the use of their property.

“Personally, I don’t think there should be a hearing but like anything else, a compromise is appropriate to get it passed,” Bradley said.

While the effort is to speed up the process for property owners, McKinney pointed out that this could affect tenants who pay rent without a written lease but instead have an oral agreement.

“There’s an eviction process for a reason. People need to have an opportunity to prove their case in court without losing their housing,” said McKinney. “It’s a quicker way to get people out and it could be abused by some landlords with bad intent.”

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While Concord faces challenges with housing and homelessness, Mayor Byron Champlain said he isn’t aware of any instances of squatting, suggesting it’s not an issue in the city.

“Based on what I’ve seen in the news, this seems to be more of an organized effort rather than people who are unhoused who are trying to find shelter,” said Byron “This sounds like kind of an organized scam.”

But he also expressed that it would be distressing for a homeowner to return from vacation and find their house occupied.

In New Hampshire, squatters who have occupied a property for 20 years may pursue adverse possession, potentially leading to ownership of the property.

However, New Hampshire’s adverse possession laws are among the most stringent, requiring a longer period compared to some states, such as Florida with 7 years and California with 5 years.

Several states, including Florida, Alabama, West Virginia, and Georgia, have recently implemented similar laws aimed at helping homeowners swiftly deal with squatters. These laws have been introduced in response to concerns about the difficulties faced by property owners in evicting individuals who unlawfully occupy their residences.

However, in New Hampshire, State Rep. Rebecca McWilliams, the primary sponsor of the original bill amended by Bradley, said that such issues are not widespread in the state, with only a few reported incidents.

“In the way it’s drafted, I don’t think it’s right for New Hampshire,” said McWilliams. She clarified that she opposes the amendment as written but remains open to its revision.

“There is a chance that it could get changed and could work for New Hampshire to have some sort of an interim step between a very clear blatant trespass charge and removal and a landlord-tenant dispute. I just don’t think we’re there yet.”

Currently, if someone believes a squatter is on their property, they can call the police for assistance.

However, under the proposed amendment, the homeowner or landowner would complete a form regarding the squatter and request the county sheriff’s intervention. Immediate family members of the property owner are exempt from this provision.

McWilliams expressed concern that this shift in jurisdiction could lead local police to refrain from responding to matters such as trespass, burglary or larceny on a property.

“If it’s a matter that’s meant to be dealt with the local police, they won’t touch it,” said McWilliams. “So things that used to be simple like trespass, it would be harder to get a response from the local police to do anything because they’ll put their hands up and say this matter is the County Sheriff’s Department, this isn’t us.”

As some of the details of the amendment are being revised, Bradley said that the state’s laws for tenants are good and this amendment applies to squatters who didn’t have a legal right to a property in the first place.

“This is my view is somewhat of a preemptive measure,” he said. “If somebody is squatting, they should be evicted immediately, held to account and potentially even arrested.”