Proposed Georgia law could make property “squatting” a crime

Georgia Squatter Reform Act, passed by the Legislature, awaits signature from Gov. Brian Kemp
State Rep. Devan Seabaugh, R-Marietta, sponsored a bill cracking down on property squatters. (Arvin Temkar /

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

State Rep. Devan Seabaugh, R-Marietta, sponsored a bill cracking down on property squatters. (Arvin Temkar /

Squatting is having a moment.

Recently, there has been a rise in high-profile reports about trespassers seizing control of vacant homes, violently clashing with realtors and landlords, trashing properties, or terrorizing homeowners.

Atlanta has been at the center of the national conversation about the practice, and Georgia lawmakers have taken notice.

In March, they passed House Bill 1017, the Georgia Squatter Reform Act, making it easier for homeowners and landlords to remove people who are staying on their properties without permission. The bill awaits Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature.

Marietta Republican Rep. Devan Seabaugh, the House sponsor, said the legislation would fix antiquated laws protecting squatters. Without the bill, it is difficult for homeowners to eject people who enter vacant properties, change the locks, and claim ownership or tenancy. He said the bill will make it quicker and easier for landlords and homeowners to wrest back control of their properties.

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

If signed into law, the amendments would make squatting a misdemeanor offense. Seabaugh said eviction backlogs in the civil courts mean it can take months to resolve cases.

The trade group National Rental Home Council has tracked 1,200 complaints of trespassing among its members in the Atlanta area.

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.

Squatters could be charged with a misdemeanor and face a $1,000 fine and up to one year in jail, or both. Seabaugh said if a magistrate judge finds the squatters used a fake lease they could be charged with a felony of filing false documents.

The bill sailed through the Georgia statehouse with bipartisan support. However, some worry that tenants who have unwittingly moved into a rental home controlled by scammers could end up being criminalized.

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 the housing affordability crisis, including skyrocketing rents and soaring home prices.

He said he was concerned that squatting laws could make it easier for landlords to evict tenants, and he accused right-wing politicians of exaggerating how common the practice is.

“I think there’s been a few high-profile cases that have received disproportionate coverage,” Weiss said.

A recent Newsweek poll found that 61% of Americans opposed the idea of squatters’ rights. Georgia is among several states that are taking action. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signing legislation in March outlawing the practice, while South Carolina and New York are also cracking down.

David Howard, CEO of the National Rental Home Council, said that squatting was a serious issue for owners of single-family rental homes. It not only raises public safety concerns and property rights but has an impact on affordability. The problem is particularly acute in Atlanta, he said, compared to other metro areas the trade group looked at.

“Every instance of illegal occupation takes one of those properties off the market and makes one of those homes less available for somebody who needs housing that is affordably priced and well located,” he said.

Speaking in March at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Betsy Bradfield of the Georgia Association of Realtors said the problem was not just confined to the metro Atlanta area.

“Squatters are currently illegally taking over our properties, destroying them, and causing havoc in our neighborhoods. A lot of times that also occurs with other criminal enterprises in the area. We’re seeing some stories of human trafficking, drug cartels … and they’re happening in squatter properties,” she said.

Even so, some were concerned the bill could have some unintended consequences for tenants, including veterans and people with disabilities.

Kristin Verrill, a managing attorney with the Veterans Law Project at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, said her group had clients who rented a property from a scammer, made rental payments through an online portal, and then discovered their lease was fake.

She asked lawmakers to make sure that a magistrate judge rather than law enforcement made the final determination to protect unwitting victims. The bill prevents unscrupulous landlords from using the bill to subvert the eviction process, she said.

“It is very easy for scammers to pretend to have authority to rent a unit to somebody. They advertise as being second-chance landlords and so they get the most vulnerable people,” she said.

Verrill also said HB 1017 protects “absentee landlords,” that often take a hands-off approach to property they own, including corporate landlords and institutional investors.

“Absentee landowners are not good for neighborhoods. They’re not good for property values. They’re not good for the safety of neighborhoods,” she said.