Gov. Kemp signs bill outlawing property squatting in Georgia

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has signed into law a bill cracking down on property squatters. (Natrice Miller/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has signed into law a bill cracking down on property squatters. (Natrice Miller/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill Wednesday criminalizing property squatting after a surge of reports about the practice in Atlanta and Georgia.

The governor’s approval comes amid an increase in national stories about trespassers seizing control of vacant homes, violently clashing with realtors and landlords, trashing properties, and terrorizing homeowners.

According to some, Atlanta is a magnet for the practice, whereby people illegally enter vacant properties and claim tenancy or ownership.

After signing House Bill 1017, or the Georgia Squatter Reform Act, Kemp described the problem as “fairly limited” but said squatting is a headache for property owners.

“The problem is the squatters have figured out ways to circumvent the law,” he said. “We’re addressing that by increasing the penalties [and] also speeding up the timeframe to get these individuals out of the houses.”

Kemp signed the bill in a closed ceremony Wednesday morning, according to his press secretary Garrison Douglas.

HB 1017 amends Georgia law relating to criminal trespass, property damage and proceedings against people who intrude on others’ property.

Law enforcement could cite those accused of unlawful squatting, giving them three business days to show a lease, rental agreement, or proof of rental payments. If they produce documentation, a magistrate judge will set a hearing within seven days to determine if the documents are authentic, according to the bill.

According to the trade group National Rental Home Council, it has received 1,200 complaints of trespassing among its members in the Atlanta area.

Georgia follows other states taking action. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation in March outlawing squatting. South Carolina and New York are likewise cracking down.

Marietta Republican Rep. Devan Seabaugh, the House sponsor, said the legislation makes it quicker and easier for landlords and homeowners to take back control of their properties.

The lawmaker said eviction backlogs in the civil courts mean it can take months to resolve cases. The new law would make squatting a misdemeanor. Trespassers could face a $1,000 fine and up to one year in jail, or both. Seabaugh said if a magistrate judge determines squatters used a fake lease they could be charged with a felony of filing false documents.

“Right now, squatters are treated like tenants of a property and they’re not tenants — they’re criminals and they’re intruders,” he said before the bill was signed.

But Brandon M. Weiss, a housing expert and law professor at the American University Washington College of Law, called the bill and others like it a “distraction” from more pressing housing issues, including skyrocketing rents and soaring home prices.

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this story.