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Squatters Occupy Houses Worth More Than $8 million

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FORT WORTH (AP) – One person moved into a dead neighbor’s house. Another came from Memphis, Tenn., to Fort Worth to lay claim to a $2.7 million mansion.

Tarrant County has become the go-to place for an assortment of squatters claiming other people’s houses as their own, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported in Sunday’s edition.

A Star-Telegram study of Tarrant County documents shows that squatters have claimed and looted other people’s houses in Fort Worth and numerous suburbs with a total value exceeding $8 million.

Tarrant County Precinct 7 Constable Clint Burgess, whose precinct includes the fast-growing suburb of Mansfield and other parts of southeastern Tarrant County, has asked the Texas attorney general’s office to step in and help bring order to the chaos.

“Everybody is just trying to learn what in the world is going on,” Burgess told the newspaper. “It’s the craziest thing how anyone could be so brazen as to just break into a home and start living in it.”

The chaos results from a loophole in a state law that allows squatters to claim property if no owner is on hand to challenge the claim. Squatters are claiming houses they insist are abandoned by filing affidavits of adverse possession with county clerks, paying a $16 filing fee, keeping current with property taxes and pledging to live in the house for at least three years.

Properties in which owners have died or are absent because of job duties or illness are at risk. Some property owners have returned home to find their houses trashed or looted.

“This is the worst thing that I’ve been through,” said Arlington accountant Joe Bruner, whose neighbor’s home was occupied by two squatters last month. “It’s not healthy for anybody — for the neighborhood, for the county. It’s just not healthy for humanity. You don’t come in and steal somebody’s home.”

The squatters loaded a commercial garbage bin with the owner’s belongings while the homeowner was in Houston having chemotherapy, Bruner said.

Homes vacant after mortgage foreclosures are also ripe for the picking because ownership is hard to discern. The Star-Telegram reported that some financial institutions it contacted were unaware that squatters had claimed and occupied homes for which the institutions were servicing loans.

One such place was the $2.7 million mansion, which had been vacant for about two years before it was claimed by a 28-year-old former Memphis, Tenn., insurance agent.

The mansion had been foreclosed on in January, and a real estate firm had been trying to sell it when the squatter arrived in August and tried to claim the place. According to police reports, she called police and told them they had no authority to evict her because she had adverse possession.

Chase Bank had serviced the foreclosure, and Chase spokesman Thomas Kelly said it has no power to evict squatters. Bank of America, which owns the house, does have that power but it has had to stop marketing the house until it can get the squatter’s affidavit dismissed.

A neighbor, retired physician Ben Termini, said the county clerk’s office has been derelict in screening these affidavits. “They should prove the property is meeting the standard for adverse possession,” he told the Star-Telegram.

Tarrant County Clerk Mary Louise Garcia said that with thousands of documents being filed with her office, it’s not feasible to spot the fraudulent ones. “But as soon as these bad actors came to our attention, we did do our due diligence,” she said.

However, that wasn’t until Nov. 7, when District Attorney Joe Shannon advised Garcia that the affidavits were likely illegal. Garcia said her office is now sending notices to property owners about adverse possession affidavits filed on their properties.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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