For five months, Ryan Parsell watched a neighbor's house in eastern El Paso County become a haven for drugs, prostitution and theft. The neighbor had passed away and squatters moved in, Parsell told the Colorado House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee in a hearing last month.
Parsell's story is unfortunately not unusual, and Senate Bill 15, approved unanimously by that House committee Thursday, hopes to help homeowners who find themselves the victim of "squatting" - people who illegally move into a home, often unbeknownst to the homeowner.
It often takes months to get the attention of law enforcement and even longer to get the illegal tenants evicted, according to the bill sponsors and those with first-hand experience.
Senate Bill 15 would allow law enforcement to evict squatters within 24 hours after the homeowner makes a declaration that someone is trespassing. The bill would make squatting when the property is altered or damaged a Class 1 misdemeanor, the most serious misdemeanor under state law.
A conviction would carry a fine of up to $5,000 and 18 months in jail. A squatter who returns to the property could also be charged with criminal trespass.
The family of the homeowner in Parcell's neighborhood hired a lawyer and private investigator in an effort to get the illegal tenants out, Parsell said. But law enforcement told him it was a civil matter and they could do nothing.
Parsell estimated 35 different people lived in that house in a five-month period, selling drugs, operating a prostitution and theft ring and vandalizing cars in the neighborhood. "Every sound was a reminder that squatter laws don't work."
After five months, the first eviction notice showed up on the door. That night, Parsell said, there was a sort of community garage sale, with appliances, copper wire and furniture stripped out of the house and sold.
The process for evicting a squatter is daunting, according to witnesses. Because squatters don't have a lease, that can extend the amount of time they can illegally possess the residence for months or even a year. Then there's the damage, and there's almost always damage in these situations.
Another witness from the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors testified that it took 85 days to evict a squatter from an area home, and that left the 85-year-old homeowner with $7,000 in damages.
The bill did run into objections from the Colorado Bar Association, which raised concerns about the misdemeanor charge and pointed out it conflicts with current law.
Democratic Rep. Mike Weissman of Aurora worked with the sponsors - El Paso Republican Reps. Larry Liston and Dave Williams - on an amendment to add a definition of an unauthorized person, and how notice must be given. The amendment also directs county courts to act on these complaints as soon as possible.
The bill won a 9-0 vote (rare for a Republican bill in House State Affairs) and now moves to the full House for debate.