Op-Ed: Atlanta’s squatter problem is at odds with why people come to Georgia

In recent years, Atlanta has become a destination for Americans fleeing some of the nation’s worst-run cities. While families often find lower taxes, better housing opportunities, and far more greenery than they had in the places they come from, they are also more likely to be met by some uninvited guests.

Across Metro Atlanta, there are 1,200 homes illegally occupied against the wishes of the property owner, according to an estimate from the National Rental Home Council last fall. This is the nation’s worst squatter problem, ahead of even the usual suspects of Chicago, San Francisco, and D.C. Squatters have stolen homes from individual homeowners while they were away caring for sick relatives or on military duty, and from institutional landlords with publicly available listings, often changing the locks while the owners are out. They’ve trashed homes, opened strip clubs, and even shot property managers. They exploit legal loopholes and fraudulent leases, sometimes dragging the legal eviction process out to nearly six months.

Thanks to a bill called the Georgia Squatter Reform Act that just passed the Georgia General Assembly, Atlanta may be able to turn this around in the near future. It is already a criminal offense to forge documents to gain public housing, but there was no similar provision for those who forge fake leases to justify their presence in other people’s homes. If squatters present a simple fake lease, their takeover of somebody else’s property becomes a matter of civil law, meaning police can do nothing while protracting the process. The governor’s signature could change all that, turning Georgia from one of the most squatter-friendly states to one of the least, and other states should follow Georgia’s lead.

The bill requires accused squatters to provide documentation of their lawful residence within three days of a law enforcement citation, while firmly establishing illegal trespass as a misdemeanor. It further allows judges to speedily determine the validity of a lease within a criminal trial, while provisioning that squatters may be held liable for the fair market value of rent “and other monetary relief found appropriate by the court” for the duration of their unauthorized stay. In other squatter-plagued states like California, where laws are stacked against homeowners and landlords, such a bill would offer a much more compelling alternative to Squatter Squads’ five-figure removal fees.

People move to the Atlanta area from around the country because of its relative security, affordability, and economic freedom compared to many other major metropolitan areas. Enterprising natives and transplants in Georgia often have the opportunity to invest in a rental property or live in a dream home that would be financially out of the question in a place like Los Angeles. For a place like Atlanta, which handled the COVID-era rise in crime far better than other urban areas around the country, the status quo on trespassers is a shocking gap in its law enforcement system.

Unsurprisingly, it disproportionately threatens the security of less affluent Georgians — whether regular homeowners or landlords. As wealthy homeowners and big commercial landlords can float legal fees or unrented units, mom-and-pop landlords and regular homeowners could be left without income or a place to live. On top of that, the growing risk can lead to higher insurance rates and is even creating demand for explicit squatter coverage.

The Squatter Reform Act will stem this tide, providing speedy legal recourse to homeowners of all financial situations who currently may need to endure months of costly legal proceedings.

Of course, the bill has a few detractors. The Atlanta Community Press Collective, an “abolitionist, not-for-profit media collective,” unfavorably noted the bill’s lack of provisions for people who were fraudulently leased to by others. It’s telling that the few voices willing to come out against this commonsense bill prioritize the rights of the gullible over those who put savings and effort into their property. To those who believe such edge cases need to be provided for, my suggestion is to propose a separate bill to do so instead of compromising the wellbeing of Georgia’s homeowners.

This state of affairs stands in stark contrast to the reputation for safety, freedom, and prosperity that bring people to this state. To show that Georgia’s reputation isn’t all hype, the governor needs to sign the Georgia Squatter Reform Act – and other states should do similarly.

Mike Viola is a resident of the Atlanta area, a one-time victim of a squatter in Chicago, and the Southeast coordinator of America’s Future. Find him on x.com @mf_viola.