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Squatters’ rights in Washington State leads to onslaught of unwelcome guests

Legal Concerns

Last year, we posted “Squatters’ Rights in New York City,” an article that looked at how difficult it is to evict squatters camping out in NYC apartments. However, urban landlords aren’t the only ones facing this issue.

It seems like Washington State has become a hotbed for squatters, too. And Spokane—with hundreds of vacant “zombie” properties—has become ground zero.

Squatters’ Rights in Spokane, WA

Just last month, a one-story home on West Cleveland Avenue caught fire. The home should have been vacant. The mortgage holder had passed away nearly two years earlier, and the house had been going through the foreclosure process. In the mean time, squatters settled in. The blaze occurred after one of the squatters attempted to refill a kerosene stove. One of the squatters was so severely burned that he had to be MedFlighted to Harborview in Seattle.

In Lincoln Heights, squatters laid down roots in a foreclosed home with no water, power, or front door. People were coming and going at all hours of the day and night. Random cars were parked outside. Residents in the typically quiet neighborhood became concerned. They confronted the squatters, but the squatters didn’t seem phased. They had no intention of leaving. Residents teamed up to take pictures and document any activity that seemed suspicious. They eventually brought this evidence to the police. Thankfully, the police intervened—but not because the squatters were terrorizing local residents. A video taken by residents revealed that two of the squatters were wanted by the police on outstanding warrants. Since then, no squatters have dared to come back.

In West Grace, squatters set up shop on one local property, pitching a tent in the backyard and using the swimming pool to bathe. When a reporter approached two of the squatters, one told her that he didn’t live there; the other told her that it beat living on the streets. At least the squatters were taking care of the property—one took a lawnmower from a neighbor and mowed the lawn!

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What You Can Do About Squatters

Residents are furious. Neighbors have reported squatters to the Spokane Police Department, but the police department says that there’s little they can do. “They can’t really do anything unless the owner of the house complains,” said Leanne Delaunay, one of the residents who contacted the police. “But we don’t know who the owner is.”

Spokane Police Sergeant Jordan Ferguson said the department is doing the most that it can, behind the scenes, to get the squatters out of the vacant house.

“A lot of it is just the way the laws are set up under landlord-tenant laws, and there’s been some interpretations where if a person takes up residency they can’t just be kicked out. They’ve got to go through a court process to get them removed,” Sgt. Ferguson explained.

“The neighborhood condition officers are monitoring all the calls in their neighborhood, tracking down these, then working with the civil enforcement unit, we even have an attorney with the city to help with these processes to get people out of the homes,” he continued. He urged residents to always report suspicious activity, and suggested that residents form a group—similar to those in Lincoln Heights—to monitor nuisances and send information to the police.

That approach has proved an effective way to deal with the squatters occupying a home on North Howard Street. The home was vacant after the owner passed away in September 2015. Police only became aware that squatters were living there after a series of strange encounters was reported. In one instance, relatives visited the property and found that the deadbolt on the front door had been changed. When they tried to enter through the back door, they encountered six people who seemed to be living inside; all fled before police arrived. On another occasion, a “renter” called the utility department asking to change the name on the property’s water bill.

The bizarre activities were enough for police to investigate. When an officer went to the home the first time, the squatters argued that they had a right to live there. On the second visit, the squatters became more agitated by the police and refused to open the door. An officer forced his way inside the home and found that the squatters had begun to dismantle the property: kitchen counters, sinks, faucets, light fixtures, a furnace cover—all had disappeared. Police arrested the four people inside, who were between the ages of 26 and 40, and subsequently charged them with residential burglary and malicious mischief.

Squatters’ Law in Washington State

Again, however, Spokane residents faced a stark reality: In Washington State, if squatters are living inside but not damaging the property or engaging in illegal activity, they cannot be forcibly evicted without a long, arduous, often costly legal process.

If you’re a landlord in Washington State, here’s what you need to know about squatters’ rights:

  • In Washington, squatting cases are treated as civil matters. There’s only one exception to this rule: If squatters forcibly broke into the home, it will be considered a criminal matter. Landlords and property managers should look for evidence of breaking and entering (e.g. broken locks, smashed windows, damaged door frames).
  • When trying to evict squatters, landlords must follow the same procedures they’d follow when trying to evict legal tenants. This includes sending the squatters a written eviction notice that includes the reason for the eviction and the date by which they must vacate the property. Squatters will often ignore the written notice.
  • Landlords should never touch any items that belong to the squatters, as this could be interpreted as a threat. If visiting the property for any reason, landlords are advised to bring a third party along as witness.
  • If squatters do not move out after receiving the eviction notice, this triggers the legal process. The court will schedule a hearing. Often, the squatters won’t show up, and this results in a default judgement for the landlord. In rare circumstances, the court will allow the squatters to stay in place, but may require the squatters to start paying the landlord rent.

The strength of squatters’ rights in Washington State has frustrated many property owners trying to evict unwelcome guests. Squatters have become so common that local policymakers have put forth new legislation that would toss squatters’ rights out the window. Under House Bill 2897, squatting would be considered a criminal offense, and would authorize law enforcement to forcibly remove the tenant upon the owner’s request. The legislation seems to have bipartisan support, but is still pending, and its final outcome is uncertain.

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In the meantime, prevention is a landlord’s best defense. Vacant properties should be kept well-secured. Anyone who suspects a squatter might be inside is advised to contact their property manager and/or an attorney. Be sure to carefully follow local eviction procedures.

Amanda Maher

Amanda Maher

Amanda Maher is a self-proclaimed policy wonk who dabbles in real estate law. Amanda holds a B.S. in Political Science and Sociology from Boston University, as well as a Masters in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern.