Squatters have infiltrated every part of the Las Vegas Valley, taking over empty houses in working-class neighborhoods, in upscale planned communities and everywhere in between. And they often bring along a trail of crime.
LAS VEGAS — On a drive through Las Vegas, the blight from the housing collapse of eight years ago can be seen on almost every block: Overgrown yards and boarded-up windows identify the foreclosed and abandoned homes that pockmark southern Nevada.
But not all of the dwellings are empty.
Squatters have infiltrated every part of the Las Vegas Valley, taking over empty houses in struggling working-class neighborhoods, in upscale planned communities such as Summerlin, and everywhere in between. And they often bring along a trail of crime.
While some unauthorized tenants are families seeking shelter, police officers say they are more frequently finding chop shops, drug dealers and counterfeiters operating out of foreclosed homes. One man who the police say was squatting has been charged with killing a neighbor during a burglary.
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Even as construction cranes have returned to the Las Vegas Strip and the unemployment rate has fallen to single digits, the situation is getting worse: the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department has received more calls about squatters each year since it began tracking the problem; there were more than 4,000 complaints last year, up 43 percent from 2014 and more than twice as many as in 2012.
Residents say the explosion of squatters has shattered their sense of security, leaving them wary of any new neighbors at a time the city is still trying to climb back from the depths of the recession.
“Things get out of hand pretty quickly when these people move in,” said Jacquelyn Romero, 59, who has lived in the neighborhood for about 15 years. “We’re trying to do almost like a neighborhood watch, just to keep ourselves safe.”
Problem is acute
Like many Las Vegas homeowners, Romero does not know how many squatters have taken up residence on her block in the past few years. There was the one who broke into cars on the street, and the one who threatened neighbors with a metal pipe. She is sure there have been others in the neighborhood’s foreclosed and boarded-up homes, but it is sometimes hard to identify them.
The problem has grown so acute that the Nevada Legislature passed a law last fall to make it easier to arrest squatters, who often brandish phony leases in hopes of staying longer in the homes they have taken over.
“People drive through neighborhoods and look for houses that appear to be vacant,” said Lt. Nick Farese, who is leading the Police Department’s anti-squatter efforts. He said squatters occupied homes across this entire city of 600,000 people, adding: “We have seen a direct correlation between squatter houses and crime — burglaries, theft, robberies, narcotics.”
In North Las Vegas, Deborah Lewis has seen just about every kind of squatter at the house next door since the owners walked away four years ago.
First, two women said they had just bought the middle-class home, but they stole water from the neighbors’ outdoor spigots at night because like most abandoned homes this one had no running water. Then came the counterfeiters, who left their printing materials visible from the window, Lewis said.
Later, groups tore out the stove, refrigerator and copper wire; broke windows; and burned the kitchen floor. Since water at the house had been shut off, they left feces all over one room, a common problem that creates health hazards. (For electricity, those who can afford it can set up accounts with the power company; those who cannot often run wires to nearby utility boxes.)
“It’s been a total circus — you name it, we’ve had it next door,” Lewis, 58, said. “It’s scary, because you don’t know if these people are packing. One guy came over here, and he was looking in our window. Scary.”
Peril for agents
Real estate agents, who spend much of their time opening up homes they expect will be empty, are particularly at risk.
Victoria Seaman, a Realtor and state assemblywoman who represents Las Vegas, said she realized how serious the problem was after she encountered squatters. While she was checking a property she was selling, two children answered the door and showed her a lease that Seaman said she knew was bogus. The parents said they had found the place on Craigslist and met someone at a casino once a month to pay rent in cash.
But there was little police could do under Nevada law at that time: If the squatters produced a lease, even if it was clearly a fake, and there was no evidence of breaking and entering, it was considered a civil dispute.
“When do kids have a lease in their back pocket?” Seaman said. “That’s when I realized how bad it was. I was a legislator and a Realtor, and I felt so helpless.”
Seaman found that across her district in northwestern Las Vegas squatters had infiltrated even wealthier neighborhoods. So she sponsored a law that established new criminal offenses such as unlawful occupancy, which outlaws moving into a vacant home knowing you do not have permission to be there. Violators can face misdemeanor or felony charges.
Local agencies have started to get creative in their efforts to combat squatters. Banks have slowed a “cash for keys” program that offered residents money to leave foreclosed homes; local elected officials said squatters were making a living moving into one foreclosed house after another, then asking the bank to pay them to move out. Once a home is listed as foreclosed in North Las Vegas, new residents cannot get their water turned on unless they prove legal occupancy.
But squatters also are getting creative. Some repair broken windows and other damage from past squatters, pretending they own the place, neighbors say. At least one group of suspected squatters filed a federal lawsuit in an attempt to keep possession of the $800,000 home in the hills, with its pool and views overlooking the Strip. (Repeated calls and knocks on the door went unanswered, even though four people were visible in the living room. The police raided the house and arrested four people Wednesday.)
In North Las Vegas, Officer Scott Vaughn has investigated 80 squatting cases this year and said he had seen everything: prostitution rings; teenagers using vacant homes for parties; and a squatter who tried to pull a Jedi mind trick.
“He was staring at me and telling me, ‘You don’t want to arrest me. You want to let me go,’ ” Vaughn said. “I said, ‘The Force is not on your side today. You’re going to jail.’ ”