When one of his rentals was broken into and taken over by squatters, Atlanta-based real-estate investor Chris Griffith spent nearly six months and $15,000 getting rid of them.
Griffith, a consultant who owns five properties in Atlanta, as well as a short-term rental, said he exchanged a flurry of emails with his property-management firm as he tried to understand how the break-in even happened.
When Griffith and his property-management company brought the squatters to court, they showed up with a fake lease. “I’m still flabbergasted that they, at this point, still think that they’re going to get away with it,” he told MarketWatch.
The squatters were eventually evicted and the sheriff’s department oversaw the process. Griffith had to repaint and repair the home to get it ready for his next legal tenant.
While squatting is a problem for landlords from Los Angeles to Cleveland to New York City who are dealing with unwanted occupants, the issue appears to be reaching a boiling point in Atlanta.
“What we’re seeing in Atlanta in terms of trespassing and illegal occupations far surpasses other markets,” David Howard, the chief executive officer of the National Rental Home Council, told MarketWatch. The organization represents landlords.
In an attempt to measure squatting incidents, NRHC surveyed members who own single-family rental homes last fall. The survey found that an estimated 1,200 homes had been taken over by squatters in Atlanta. NHRC had never conducted the survey before, so no historical numbers are available to indicate whether the figure represents an increase or decrease.
In the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area, an estimated 475 homes were occupied by squatters, and in Orange County, Fla., an estimated 125 were, Howard noted.
“Because of the scale of the trespassing issue in Atlanta, we need to look at this for what it is — criminal activity,” he added.
Attention to the issue intensified after a local news channel, Channel 2 Action News, reported that an Instagram account was facilitating squatting by giving people keys and a fake lease to an unoccupied home for a one-time payment.
“There’s a consistency of practice in Atlanta as to how these incidents are taking place that raises the issue of whether there’s something more organized going on,” Howard said.
Coverage of the Instagram account inspired members of the Georgia state legislature to introduce a bill titled the Georgia Squatter Reform Act to criminalize the act of squatters taking over homes.
The squatting situation in Atlanta underscores the dire need for affordable housing in many U.S. cities. A sharp rise in rents over the past few years has left millions of tenants spending too much of their incomes on housing costs, pushing the share of so-called rent-burdened households to an all-time high, according to a recent report by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.
A full-time minimum-wage worker cannot afford a modest one-bedroom rental in over 92% of counties in the U.S., a separate report last year from the National Low Income Housing Coalition showed.
“The rent is too damn high,” Tara Raghuveer, the director of the Homes Guarantee campaign, part of the national progressive advocacy group People’s Action, told MarketWatch. “Tenants are forced to make impossible choices in a market that treats their lives like investments.”
Between 2022 and 2023, the number of people experiencing homelessness grew by 12%, or roughly 71,000 more people, to a record high of 653,000, according to a December report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In Georgia, 47.4% of the nearly 12,300 people experiencing homelessness were unsheltered in 2023, the report noted, up 15% from the previous year.
Large corporate investors have also bought up big chunks of metro Atlanta, based on data from Parcl Labs. Even though institutions only own 3.4% of single-family homes in the U.S., in some Atlanta ZIP codes, large operators own over 10% of single-family homes, which is a large share. “The concentration of large operators in Atlanta is not a gradual, long-term trend,” the company notes, since they have decelerated buying in Atlanta starting in 2022.
“The whole country is experiencing a housing emergency that will only be solved by a regulatory agenda and public investments that prioritize people over profit,” Raghuveer said.
The squatter situation in Atlanta isn’t just affecting landlords, but also some people buying and selling homes, Michael Fisher, an associate broker at Ansley Real Estate, told MarketWatch.
“There was one instance where someone was purchasing a home … and in the time between the seller vacating the home and the buyer moving in, somebody took possession of the property,” he added. “So when the new buyer showed up, somebody’s living in the house.”
Landlords can take squatters to housing court to get them kicked out, but courts are still backlogged with cases due to the pandemic, he added. “Landlords are having to wait patiently on the court system to get their case through,” Fisher said.
The proposed legislation would make it easier for landlords to call on the police to evict tenants, as it would make squatting a criminal offense.
Griffith, the Atlanta real-estate investor, said his experience with squatters moving into one of his properties began when one long-term tenant left and the house was being fixed up for the next.
The property manager had installed a lockbox on the door of the house so that potential renters could show themselves the home unsupervised — an arrangement that was not ideal, he said, but was common practice for the company.
But when the company went to check on the property in August, it sent an email to Griffith bearing “bad news”: A family of four was squatting in the house.
“That sent off a whole email storm, then calls, trying to understand how it was even possible,” Griffith said.
For every month that the house was not rented since August, he estimated, he lost between $1,700 and $1,750 in rental income. He also estimated an additional $2,500 to $3,000 in renovation expenses, and $2,000 in legal fees.
When the police were called, “the person inside said, ‘I have a lease for this property, and I’m allowed to be here,’” he explained, which was false. “And the police said if they have a lease, this is no longer a criminal matter — it’s a civil matter; we can’t remove them.”
Griffith tried to pay the squatters $2,500 to leave, but they refused.
He ended up going to court to get the squatters out. They showed up and presented their fake lease, which Griffith said surprised him. They hammered out a deal in arbitration, and the squatters agreed to vacate the premises. But after they delayed the move-out deadline, Griffith and the property-management company commenced efforts to start the eviction process.
“It was not enjoyable,” Griffith said. The squatters left in December, five and a half months after they first occupied the property. The home is still unrented.