Las Vegas faces wave of squatters as thousands of homes sit abandoned

Authorities are upping their game with new laws and more aggressive enforcement after a 25% leap in the last three years in calls regarding squatters

From the start, officer Scott Vaughn sensed there was something peculiar about the people living in the house on Ocotillo Mesa Drive.

He figured one thing was for sure: they shouldnt be there.

They were illegal squatters who had slipped into a vacant house in this middle class neighborhood with palm trees and well-groomed lawns. And it was his job to flush them out.

Responding to Vaughns mid-morning knock, a man in his early 20s, dressed in shorts and a tank top decorated with cacti, came to the door.

Vaughn was straightforward: how long have you lived here? Do you have a lease?

The barefooted man didnt have many answers. Sure, he had a lease right there at the ready. But everything else he said was a muddle. No, he didnt have any ID and couldnt remember his social security number. His parents had rented the place and they were at work. No, he didnt have the telephone number. The landlord was a man he knew only as Robert, and he had recently disconnected his phone.

All I can say is that we have a lease, the man offered, looking over his shoulder at an elderly woman pushing a walker past a living room crucifix. A German Shepherd barked anxiously in the side yard.

Code enforcement officer Tony Cardona investigates inside a squatter home in North Las Vegas. Photograph: David Becker for the Guardian

Vaughn, a 16-year police veteran and his departments designated anti-squatter officer, had heard enough. He knew the family had been denied water services and had forced open the line at the house. He was going to come back soon, he said, to interview the mans parents. Meanwhile, the water to the house would be switched off that day.

Listen, we can do this the easy way or the hard way, he said. You make the call.

In Las Vegas, where an up-and-down economy creates big winners and desperate losers, thousands of houses sit vacant, abandoned to the gray-area between people who could no longer afford them and banks trying to get a handle on a spiraling inventory.

Into the breach has stepped thousands of squatters, among them suspected scam artists who scheme to get utilities turned on at their chosen targets, living for free as they plot their end game: getting a bank to pay them to leave in a racket known as cash-for-keys.

Using bogus leases, the scammers bring crime. Some have run drug, prostitution and weapons sale rings from their adopted homes. Others have started fires and slowly stripped houses of all resalable items.

This scourge of illegal occupancies is the lasting legacy of the regions housing collapse of nearly a decade ago, which at the time left more than 80% of homes in southern Nevada underwater, a figure three times the national rate. Today, more than 2%, or nearly 14,000 homes, sit vacant in southern Clark County; the national average is 1.6%.

Las Vegas metropolitan police, which patrol an area of nearly two million residents, have seen a 25% leap in the last three years in calls for service regarding suspected squatters, up to nearly 5,000 annually. In North Las Vegas, a city with 200,000 residents, officers have worked to remove trespassers from 180 homes in the last year alone.

Now, authorities are upping their game with new laws and more aggressive enforcement.

North Las Vegas has created a taskforce of police, code enforcement and utilities officials that have developed ways to red flag foreclosed vacant houses before squatters get a chance to move in.

A new law approved by the state legislature last year now brings possible jail time for such offenses as housebreaking and forcibly entering a vacant home to take up residence or letting someone else live there without the owners consent.

Victoria Seaman, a Nevada assemblywoman and real estate agent who helped sponsor the new anti-squatter law, said Nevada is leading the nation in tough new housebreaking laws.

This is a problem nationwide, but no more so than here, she said. Were hearing from other states who want to jump onboard with similar laws.

North Las Vegas police officers Alain Villanueva and Scott Vaughn investigate a possible squatter residence. Photograph: David Becker for the Guardian

Romina Wilson, business services manager for the North Las Vegas utilities department, has seen most of the tricks scammers use.

Many times, the owners name is wrong or humorously misspelled on the boilerplate lease. Other times, the leases indicate that the rent is paid to the rental address itself. Or the telephone number for the owner and renter are identical.

Wilson has telephoned so-called owners numbers with the would-be renter there in front of her.

They stand there while the phone in their pocket suddenly starts ringing, she said. They pretend its not happening. And then they try to look at you with a straight face.

Vaughn said he was investigating a suspect he believes targets longterm occupant motels in town looking for takers: For $700, he can get them into a vacant house, where they can stay rent free until a bank pays them $3,500 to vacate the premises.

Children are often unwitting victims to the scams. Vaughn arrested a mother with five children, aged two to 11, who squatted in a house for eight months, the last five without water. Neighbors spotted her jumping fences at night to steal water.

The grandmother took custody of the kids, and was flabbergasted her daughter could allow them to live this way, he said. We were both flabbergasted.

On a recent week day, Vaughn and Officer Allen Villanueva were busy.

After the stop on Ocotillo Mesa, another tip from a neighbor led the patrolmen to a house inhabited by four suspected squatters.

After questioning, two men were arrested for unrelated warrants, and the women dragged their belongings out to the street, as city workers bolted the doors behind them.

When I go home to the neighborhood Ive chosen for a safe environment, he said. Im satisfied that Ive helped provide that safe environment for someone else.

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