Concord Monitor – Bradley Amendment seeks to allow property owners quicker action to get rid of squatters

Holly Ramer/AP file photo

Following other states, lawmakers in New Hampshire are pushing a bill that would speed up the eviction of people living illegally on private property. However, this legislative initiative has raised concerns about unintended consequences.

“This could inadvertently destabilize housing for people most at risk of homelessness,” said Dawn McKinney, policy director for New Hampshire Legal Assistance.

To evict someone in New Hampshire, a 30-day notice to vacate the property is typically issued. If they refuse to leave the home after receiving this notice, the matter will be taken to court before the eviction is enforced.

Senate President Jeb Bradley's proposed amendment to House Bill 1400, originally focused on parking, would eliminate a court hearing with a judge and place decision-making authority in the hands of the sheriff. This law is aimed at squatters, not tenants. Squatters are people who unlawfully occupy or occupy vacant or unused properties, often without the owner's permission.

Since the amendment was proposed, New Hampshire Legal Assistance and other groups have worked on a different version of its amendment. It calls for an expedited hearing within 48 hours and a quick eviction process that does not require the homeowner weeks, if not months, to regain use of their property.

“I personally don’t think there should be a hearing, but like anything else, a compromise is in order to get it through,” Bradley said.

While it's about speeding up the process for property owners, McKinney noted that this could affect tenants who pay their rent without a written lease, but instead have a verbal agreement.

“There is an eviction process for good reason. People must have the opportunity to prove their case in court without losing their homes,” McKinney said. “It’s a quicker way to get people out and it could be misused by some landlords in bad faith.”

While Concord struggles with housing issues and homelessness, Mayor Byron Champlain said he is not aware of any cases of squatting, suggesting it is not a problem in the city.

“Based on what I've seen on the news, this appears to be an organized effort rather than people without homes trying to find shelter,” Byron said. “This sounds like some kind of organized fraud.”

However, he also expressed that it would be disturbing for a homeowner to return from vacation and find their home occupied.

In New Hampshire, squatters who have occupied a property for 20 years can pursue adverse possession, potentially resulting in possession of the property.

However, New Hampshire's adverse possession laws are among the strictest and require a longer period of time compared to some states, such as Florida at 7 years and California at 5 years.

Several states, including Florida, Alabama, West Virginia and Georgia, have recently introduced similar laws designed to help homeowners take quick action against squatters. These laws were introduced in response to concerns about the difficulties property owners face in evicting people who unlawfully occupy their homes.

However, in New Hampshire, Rep. Rebecca McWilliams, the lead sponsor of the original bill amended by Bradley, said such problems were not widespread in the state and few incidents had been reported.

“The way it’s worded, I don’t think it’s appropriate for New Hampshire,” McWilliams said. She made it clear that she rejects the amendment in its current form, but remains open to a revision.

“There is a possibility that it could be changed and it could work for New Hampshire to create some kind of transitional step between a very clear charge of blatant trespass and removal and a landlord-tenant dispute. I just don’t think we’re there yet.”

Currently, if someone believes there is a squatter on their property, they can contact the police for help.

However, under the proposed change, the homeowner or landowner would fill out a form regarding the squatter and request the county sheriff's intervention. Immediate family members of the property owner are exempt from this regulation.

McWilliams expressed concern that this shift in jurisdiction could result in local police no longer responding to cases such as trespassing, burglary or theft on a property.

“If it's a matter that needs to be addressed with the local police, they won't bother with it,” McWilliams said. “For things that used to be as simple as trespassing, it was harder to get a response from local police because they would raise their hands and say this matter is the responsibility of the county sheriff's department and not us.”

Because some details of the change are being revised, Bradley said the state's laws are good for renters and this change applies to squatters who have no legal right to a property at all.

“I think this is kind of a preventive measure,” he said. “If someone squats, they should be immediately evicted, held accountable and possibly even arrested.”

Anna Harden

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