Is NYC really facing a ‘squatter’ problem? Lawyers on both sides say no.

Tabloids, talk shows and TikTok have recently been abuzz with tales of “squatters” taking over New York City homes from unwitting landlords and refusing to leave.

It’s a potential nightmare for a homeowner, who must then go to a judge to start a monthslong process to kick out the occupants. The stories are driving interest about housing court procedures and even inspiring new legislation, just as one of the city’s biggest landlords is suing the state court system to speed up evictions.

But attorneys working for landlords and tenants in Queens say “squatters” who break into a vacant home and refuse to leave are rare.

“It’s not like all of a sudden a lot of squatter cases are coming in,” said Jae Lee, a Queens-based lawyer who represents owners and renters. “I don’t see cases like that increasing.”

The state’s Office of Court Administration says it doesn’t track “squatter”-related cases or have data to suggest they’re on the rise. So Gothamist visited Queens’ housing court to speak with lawyers handling landlord-tenant disputes amid recent high-profile incidents that have fueled media coverage.

Tenant lawyers and advocates say extreme examples, which can be horrible for individual homeowners, may give the impression that the “squatter” problem is rampant.

“Some people are called ‘squatter,’ but they aren’t, and I think there can be malicious intent behind that term,” said Adam Edwards-Rivera, a tenant lawyer from the organization Queens Legal Services who was offering legal assistance to renters in court on Monday.

Last month, a TV news crew filmed a Flushing woman getting arrested after she changed the locks of a home where she said occupants were staying without her permission. A man in Douglaston who was hired to care for an elderly homeowner stayed in the home after the man died, and then refused to leave when the man’s family sold the home, according to a lawsuit against him. A woman visiting her deceased mother’s apartment in Kips Bay was allegedly killed by squatters. The New York Post has published at least 36 stories and columns about “squatters” from around the country since March 1. Joe Rogan devoted an episode to the issue last month.

The term “squatter” typically refers to someone who moves into an empty property without the owners’ knowledge or permission. Under state law those trespassers aren’t supposed to be entitled to tenant protections.

But cases are typically more complicated. An owner will probably be forced to file a lawsuit to evict an occupant if they have stayed for 30 days, as in the two Queens cases. The tenant protections can also apply to residents who sublease an apartment, or even family members of legal tenants who don’t appear on a lease.

Landlord attorney Daniel Pomerantz said the proliferation of “squatter” stories gets to a deeper, albeit chronic complaint among property owners: The eviction process can take more than a year to complete amid long delays and a deep backlog of cases.

“That is the underlying problem,” Pomerantz said. “The big problem when the landlord or the owner tries to get them out is the delays in the court system that have not improved at all since COVID,” he said.

He said it takes months for landlords to get their cases resolved, and then even longer to get a marshal to carry out an eviction after a judge orders it. Owners have complained about the delays for years, especially after the state enacted a nearly two-year freeze on most evictions early in the pandemic.

In late February, one of the city’s biggest landlords sued the state court system to speed up the process for kicking out tenants.

The complaint, which was filed by a group of entities tied to the LeFrak Organization, claims New York’s housing laws have created an “inefficient system tilted decidedly against the protection of landowner’s rights to their property.”

The plaintiffs say the problem is nothing new.

“While practitioners before the housing court may wax nostalgic about a long-gone era” where cases moved quickly, “they have been collectively mired in interminable and inexplicable delays in seeking the vindication of their clients’ rights to their respective property for so long that it has surreally become ‘normal,’” the complaint states.

The rise in squatter anecdotes on social media and TV news has coincided with the lawsuit, but attorney Craig Gambardella, who is representing the LeFrak entities, said he doesn’t know of any connection or “campaign” to sensationalize the issue.

He said the LeFrak lawsuit applies to nonpayment proceedings and that his clients want the state to increase staffing at housing court in order to get through cases faster.

“We’re finding ourselves in a position where the current situation is untenable for landlords and tenants,” Gambardella said. “Landlords are going months, and in many cases years or more, without the payment of rent.”

New York City landlords have filed more than 550,000 eviction cases since 2019, according to state court statistics. Those cases resulted in around 36,300 actual evictions, despite the pause on most legal lockouts between March 2020 and January 2022, according to data previously analyzed by Gothamist. Rent arrears surged during the pandemic and city marshals carried out around 12,000 residential evictions last year.

But unpaid rent is different from a stranger sliding into an empty home. As Curbed reported on Monday, tenant advocates and policy groups sense a “panic” forming around the squatter issue that could undermine support for tenant protections.

“We think there might be several things at play here [including] election-year fearmongering in a housing market that’s increasingly difficult for working-class families to navigate,” said Eviction Lab spokesperson Camila Vallejo, whose organization tracks evictions and analyzes policy.

Vallejo also said the squatter fears coincide with a rise in the number of migrants looking for housing in cities like New York. The city is facing a homelessness crisis and dire housing shortage, and less than 1% of apartments priced below $2,400 are vacant and available to rent, according to its most recent housing survey.

“By all measures, squatting is extremely rare,” said Vallejo. “There is no evidence that we know of that shows that squatting accounts for a meaningful portion of eviction cases or that the number of squatting-related eviction cases is increasing.”

A review of 2023 housing court data by the policy group New York Housing Conference found that 83% of the roughly 126,000 eviction cases filed in the five boroughs last year were for nonpayment of rent.

That leaves about 21,000 “holdover cases” — the legal term for an eviction based on something other than nonpayment, like if a tenant breaks the law, or the landlord just wants to empty the unit.

The state court system website doesn’t distinguish eviction cases filed against people who moved into empty properties without the landlord’s permission from other kinds of “holdover” cases.

The state does offer a Small Property Owner Squatter Holdover Petition Program, but it’s unclear how many landlords are using it. The Office of Court Administration said it does not have that data available.

An OCA spokesperson did not provide a response when asked about the LeFrak lawsuit.

But attorneys working with small homeowners to defend against foreclosure, deed theft and other problems also said the squatter issue is being sensationalized.

Typically, small landlords turn to housing court to evict someone who is staying in a property after a lease expires and stops paying rent, said Scott Kohanowski, general counsel for the Center for NYC Neighborhoods.

“A lot of my clients were suffering intensely because someone in their unit was not paying and the owners are still having to pay their own expenses,” Kohanowski said.

But those aren’t “squatters,” he added.

Kohanowski said he polled a network of hundreds of nonprofit legal service lawyers assisting small homeowners with foreclosure and deed theft on Monday to see if anyone had clients dealing with squatters. Just one reported fielding a call from someone who said they inherited a home and were having a problem with “squatters.”

“It seems a little alarmist,” Kohanowski said. “No one is seeing a real uptick in these sorts of cases.”

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