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A proposed bill could have unintended consequences for renters in Florida

Shot using a drone during the golden hour shows an upscale suburbs with gold course, lake, houses and roof tops
Rajesh Pandit/Getty Images
Shot using a drone during the golden hour shows an upscale suburbs with gold course, lake, houses and roof tops

HB 621, on squatters' rights, would expand the definition of “transient occupants” in two ways: It would include renters without a notarized lease and tenants without a receipt of rental payment to the property's owner.

A bill filed in the Florida House would abolish the doctrine of adverse possession in the state, or what’s better known as “squatter’s rights.”

As written, HB 621 would also expand the definition of “transient occupants,” or those unlawfully occupying residential property.

The bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Kevin Steele (R- Dade City), was filed on Nov. 21. The proposal has since been referred to the Civil Justice Subcommittee, according to legislative records.

Some legal experts warn that the bill, Possession of Real Property, could have unintended consequences for Florida renters.

Attorney Kevin Rabin said the most concerning part of the bill involves who could be called a “transient occupant,” or someone who is temporarily and unlawfully occupying residential property.

According to Chapter 82 of Florida Statutes, transient occupants are subject to a swift removal process that — unlike an eviction — takes place without a court hearing.

Rabin said this process is most often used in Florida as a simpler and quicker way to remove unlawful tenants — typically unhoused persons — who are occupying property.

However, HB 621 would expand the definition of “transient occupants,” in two ways, to include: renters without a notarized lease and tenants without a receipt of rental payment to the property's owner.

In many cases, Rabin said that law-abiding renters in Florida have neither.

He warns that broadening the definition in this way could open the door for bad-acting landlords to use the provision as an alternative to the formal eviction process.

“What this statute alteration does is it now gives a landlord — potentially one that maybe wants to be a little daring — the ability to say, ‘Well, in the case of non-payment of rent, I'm just going to sign an affidavit to the sheriff saying that they're a transient occupant, and they should be removed without a court's order,’ ” Rabin said.

Though the bill's language is subject to change throughout the upcoming session, Rabin said the current version raises potential constitutional concerns regarding due process.

Another provision of the bill would completely repeal the “doctrine of adverse possession of real property.”

In what’s better known as “squatter’s rights” in Florida, current law permits a person who is openly and continuously occupying property to eventually become its owner.

Rabin said Florida law sets a high bar for a resident to successfully stake a claim of adverse possession.

“It’s always been very hard, at least in recent years, to exercise a claim for adverse possession against another owner of property, in part because Florida has a somewhat unique requirement,” he said.

The person must reside on the property for at least seven years and pay property taxes before staking a claim of adverse possession, according to Chapter 95 of the Florida Statutes.

Rabin said you typically see adverse possession claims involved in Florida cases to resolve rural land disputes over boundaries or to deal with property that’s been left without an identifiable heir.

For example, he said if a friend of a deceased homeowner – who has no heirs or identifiable family members – occupies and pays taxes on the property for seven years, he or she would have cause to become the legal owner under current Florida law.

If HB 621 was adopted, that would no longer be the case in Florida.

And without that legal avenue to property ownership, Rabin said it's more likely for abandoned property to end up in the hands of investors.

“At least to my knowledge, no state has ever taken a step to abolish adverse possession,” Rabin said.

While unusual, he said repealing squatter’s rights in Florida is the least concerning of the statutory changes proposed by HB 621.

“I think this part of the squatter’s rights bill is more minimal in its long-term impacts,” he said.

Expanding the definition of a transient occupant, he said, is a really big shift.

Gabriella Paul covers the stories of people living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region for WUSF. She's also a Report for America corps member. Here’s how you can share your story with her.

I tell stories about living paycheck to paycheck for public radio at WUSF News. I’m also a corps member of Report For America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.