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Arizona lawmakers debating bill that would let property owners get rid of squatters

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- State lawmakers are one step away from approving legislation designed to make it easier for property owners to get squatters out of their homes.
But a key Democrat lawmaker said she fears the proposed fix for the issued confronting some homeowners could end up being used as a weapon by those who commit domestic violence, forcing victims from their homes.
Sen. Wendy Rogers said her measure is designed to take care of an increasing problem
"You go on vacation, your house is empty -- you think,'' the Flagstaff Republican told colleagues. "You come home and there are squatters in your property.''
These aren't tenants who have overstayed a lease. There are existing provisions in the Arizona Landlord and Tenant Act to deal with that, including seeking a court order.
Under current law, Rogers said, police are pretty much powerless to determine whether the people in the house have no right to be there. Instead, property owners generally have to go to court, a process that can take time and money -- all the while with someone in the house, possibly destroying it.
Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson, said this is a real problem.
"As a Realtor, I can tell you that I had to start carrying a gun with me everywhere I go when I do real estate,'' she said. "I have walked into some of these townhouses and homes where they were beaten up, curtains pulled down, windows smashed, people urinating and defecating inside the house.''
But that, Wadsack said, is only part of the problem.
"When you turn the corner and you're thinking you're going to show your buyer the third bedroom and you come face to face with someone who is essentially taking possession of someone else's property, essentially, is terrifying,'' she said. But calls to the police, said Wadsack, end up with a response that there's not much they can do.
Current laws, she said, require time to go through a process to remove someone.
As crafted by Rogers, SB 1129 would allow a property owner, faced with someone who will not leave, to submit a signed affidavit to police saying the occupant does not pay rent, had no ownership or lease interest in the property, and has no right to be there.
Based on that, an officer would be able to direct the person to leave. And if he or she does not, the occupant then can be charged with trespass.
The proposal, though, did include language to say someone who is wrongfully removed has the right to sue for damages.
SB 1129 cleared the Senate on a bipartisan 18-8 vote.
But when the measure got to the House, there were new questions.
"We don't have a philosophical problem,'' Maxine Becker, an attorney with Wildfire, formerly known as the Arizona Community Action Association, told members of the House Judiciary Committee. "Certainly anyone who does not have a legal right to be in a home should be able to be removed swiftly.''
She said, however, there already are several laws on the books about dealing with both trespassers and "unwanted guests.''
More to the point, said Becker, is how the law might be used against victims of domestic violence.
She said that, even under existing laws, there are women in shelters "who have been threatened by the police, by their abusers that they will have to leave.''
"This codifies that,'' said Becker of the legislation.
That got the attention of Rep. Analise Ortiz.
When the measure came to the full House, the Phoenix Democrat told colleagues that they need to listen to not just Wildfire but also the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence which is opposed to SB 1129. Ortiz also said the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police, whose officers would be handling the evictions, also is opposed.
And Ortiz said there are other flaws.
"It also is not adequate to protect lawful tenants,'' she said, with nothing in the bill as approved by the Senate requiring actual proof of actual ownership or legal ability to act on behalf of the owner. Also missing, Ortiz said, is the ability of the person living there to provide contrary information to counter the affidavit before being removed.
"That is where the concern comes in about survivors of intimate partner violence who might be living with an abuser and this SB 1129 could be weaponized against them,'' she said.
House Majority Leader Leo Biasiucci did agree to add some provisions to the Senate-approved bill.
For example, the new language says that a property owner would first have to sign an affidavit searing, under penalty of perjury, that he or she is the owner or authorized agent and the occupant had refused a directive to leave.
Biasiucci also included language to say that the remedy of removal in the bill would not apply if the occupant is an immediate family member of the property owner. The same would be true if there was a "prior verbal or written agreement to cohabitate with the property owner in the residential dwelling.''
Ortiz, however, said that is still insufficient to protect victims.
"It's riddled with inconsistencies and unclear mandates of law enforcement,'' she said. Ortiz said that includes requiring absolute verification that the person signing the affidavit and seeking the eviction is, in fact, the legal owner of the property.
She also said the new language also really doesn't protect people who have been living together.
"How do you prove the oral agreement?'' she asked. Ortiz said proponents should have worked closely with Wildife and the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence, as groups most familiar with the issue, to resolve the questions.
The measure now needs senators to review the changes made in the House. If they approve, that would send the measure to Gov. Katie Hobbs.
On X and Threads: @azcapmedia