Georgia Squatter Reform Act passes, awaits governor's signature

Georgia's legislators have a new message for property squatters: The law is no longer on your side. Waiting for Gov. Brian Kemp's signature is the "Georgia Squatter Reform Act." 

Squatters live in other people's homes without permission, rent-free, and refuse to leave. But when kicking them out, the law has been on their side. The real homeowners call the police, but they are too often told they have to take these strangers to court. 

This week a new law, waiting for the governor's signature, sides with property owners, so someone like "Machete Man," who we introduced to you, wouldn't be allowed to stay and scare neighbors for months on end.

In the summer of 2021, Atlanta police made several stops at a property in the Kirkwood neighborhood. 

Kelsey Womack still owns the business next door.

"He was threatening to hurt my clients if they parked in front of his house," she told the FOX 5 I-Team that summer. "It's caused me nothing but stress. It's caused us to lose money, to lose business."

Neighbors and business owners had no luck with the police. Out-of-state ownership told us that Brandon Barkely had no right to be there. But they told the I-Team that Atlanta police said they'd have to take him to court. The man living there eventually just moved on.

"Well, in my opinion, squatters are criminals," said Rep. Devan Seabaugh, R-Marietta. "They're trespassing on someone's private property. And right now they're being treated like they're tenants on that property."  

The District 34 Republican sponsored with others the "Georgia Squatter Reform Act." It passed unanimously this week in the Georgia legislature. He says if the squatters show a lease, real or not, the case gets gummed up in Superior Court.

"And the process to remove them is long and arduous," he said. "And it's taking eight months up to two years."

Georgia HB 1017 would speed up the process.

"What we've done with this bill is it will go to magistrate court, a non-jury trial, to expedite that. If they present a lease, they have three days to present that lease to the court. The court has seven days to make a determination if that's a good lease or a fake lease."

Last fall, the I-Team got a call from Ronan McCabe, a frustrated Tucker homeowner, who discovered people living in his home that was empty and for sale. He called the police several times, asking for help.

"They broke into my house and moved in. They have no contract. No agreement with me. Gwinnett County police are saying there is nothing they can do," McCabe told us exasperated, standing outside the home he owned but could no longer enter. 

But then something did happen. Federal marshals poured out of vehicles and soon punched open the door with a battering ram. Ramon Fuertes III was arrested. Not for squatting. Coincidentally, he was under surveillance. Fuertes was arrested on an outstanding warrant related to child sex trafficking. If that hadn't happened, he and his friends might still be living in the neighborhood.

At the time, Rep. Kim Schofield, D-Atlanta, called the laws on the books outdated.

"We gotta be better than this," the Georgia District 63 representative said. "Why are we empowering scammers and squatters to milk the system?"

Well, the power is shifting. The new bill awaits the governor's signature. And there's new hope that homeowners can control their own property again.

"I don't think we're finished," Rep. Seabaugh said. "I think we will continue to look at the laws."