My husband and I bought a little cottage in March of last year near Samuell Grand Tennis Center, in Old East Dallas. It was built in 1923 and was just under 700 square feet. Our plan was to fix it up for Gavin’s 86-year-old dad. He was ill, his wife was dying, and we wanted him nearby so that we could help out. The place was empty on closing day. We had our handyman bid on a complete overhaul: demo, floors, central heat and air, windows, the works. Then COVID-19 hit the following week—spring break.
Our lives abruptly changed. Our incomes were in jeopardy, our kids started schooling online, and now Gavin was working from home (I already did and I liked my solo gig, thank you very much). On the last day of the month, as I was stockpiling dried beans like a psycho and still generally in shock about the pandemic, Gavin, who is very handy, thought, “I’ve got the time, and I need to save money. I’ll do the demo myself.” Off he went with a crowbar and contractor trash bags to tear out the kitchen and bathroom.
When he got there, the key that our real estate agent had given us didn’t work on the front door, which was weird. He’d been in and out of the place already with the handyman. He tried the door handle and the deadbolt a few times, jiggling it, getting frustrated. Suddenly, the door swung open, and two large men were standing there. One shouted, “Get the fuck off my porch!” Gavin was stunned. He tried to explain that he owned the house but was only met with threats, so he called the police.
The two angry men claimed they had a lease and held up their phones, showing proof. Gavin told the cops that he had just bought the house and had never met the men, who were obviously trespassing. Despite my husband’s pleading, the police concluded that this was a civil matter of eviction. They said they couldn’t do anything. Gavin was left standing there, dumbfounded. The squatters shut the door in his face.
When he came home much sooner than I expected, he was still shaking from the confrontation. When he told me what had happened, I was just as confused as he was. Honestly, I didn’t quite believe him and kept asking if he was sure he had gone to the right place. After hearing the story a few times, I wanted to go over there myself, but Gavin assured me that I would not, in fact, be able to “kick their ass.”
We called our real estate agent. We called our title company. We called an attorney. (We are both attorneys but don’t know anything about evictions.) We were told that ours were not the first squatters to have figured out this scam. There are apparently itinerant squatters who go from house to house, and the only way homeowners can get rid of them is through a court-
ordered eviction. In fact, our attorney said he had been involved in squatter situations where homeowners had gone out of town and returned to find strangers living in their houses.
Evictions in the normal world are costly and time-consuming. You have to give a formal notice to vacate to the evictees, pay to file a lawsuit with the court, wait to get on the court’s docket, have a hearing, and get a judge’s order to evict. Then you get to wait some more for the evictees to move out, which, if they’re squatters, they won’t do expeditiously. So you go back to the court, wait to get a writ of possession ordering a constable to take action against the evictees, then wait to get on the constable’s schedule, wait for the constable to give notice to the evictees (twice!), and then finally have the bad guys escorted out.
In a normal world, this can take two months or more, which is all the professional squatters are hoping for. But we aren’t in a normal world anymore. In COVID World, everything moves more slowly. Let’s just say that as of this writing, in mid-November, the squatters are still in our house.
A few days after Gavin’s rude reception at our own house, he returned to personally deliver the notice of eviction. This visit was fueled mostly by curiosity. Surely this was just a bad dream. Maybe they had left.
When Gavin pulled up, one of the men was sitting on the porch, smoking a cigarette with a woman. Gavin played cool. He stepped out of his truck and approached the front gate. The man left the porch to meet him.
“Here’s your notice to vacate,” Gavin said, like it was something he did every day of the week.
“There a court date in there?” the man asked, his tone also calm.
“Not yet, but it’s coming,” Gavin replied.
The man tossed his cigarette butt on the lawn, lit another, and returned to the porch. As he sat down, he said, “Man, times are rough, you know?”
“Times are rough for a lot of people. I was trying to move my sick dad into this place, before you guys showed up.” Gavin was doing his best to project calm, but inside he was on fire.
“Hey, man, as soon as things turn around, I’ll be out of your place,” the squatter said. He gave a sly grin.
Gavin found himself saying, “Stay cool, man,” but it was probably more to himself than to the squatter.
And so. Our eviction suit is against Jane Doe and John Doe. We don’t know their names or even how many people were living there. I can’t tell you how much this has affected us. Gavin and I have found ourselves discussing solutions only to end up in fights with each other, with angry voices and tears. I guess we have no one else to yell at about it. And this is a yelling kind of situation for sure. Gavin feels responsible and pissed off. I feel stupid and pissed off. We both have sleepless nights thinking about it all.
Obviously, we cut off the power to the house right away, but the squatters were able to turn it back on. We had our handyman go over to take apart the breaker box, but he had to leave before getting anything done because the men threatened him. The water was still turned on but not under any name since we had just bought the property. Somehow that account had fallen through the cracks. The squatters boarded up the front door as if preparing for Armageddon and even boarded up the breaker box so we couldn’t try to remove it again. According to neighbors, the people living in our house came and went through the back door.
In May, Gavin couldn’t take the nightmares anymore. He hired a heavy—a guy named Sonny who was recommended by a friend—to stake out the cottage to see what was going on. Sonny figured out that there was only one man living there, and when the man left one day, Sonny called Gavin and then Gavin called the police. When the police arrived, Gavin explained the situation. After the police knocked on the door and looked in every window, they gave Gavin and Sonny permission to break down the front door. The police followed them in and sprayed tear gas into the attic because they were worried someone might be hiding there. Then the cops left.
I stopped by to have a look and take pictures. It was strange to see that our little house looked like normal living quarters. A couch and coffee table and about five TVs and a video game console were in the living room, a bed frame and bureau were in the bedroom, and the kitchen looked used. Dishes sat in the sink. Food was in the cupboards. There were clothes in the closets and even framed pictures on the walls.
Gavin and Sonny got to work, carrying everything to the curb. They also took the front and back doors off their hinges and started to dismantle the breaker box. The neighbors came out to snap up the squatter’s belongings. They said they didn’t like this guy and were glad to see that he was gone, as they dragged his mattress and other furniture into their homes.
I found some mail with a name on it and called a friend to run a background check. The man was in jail, with his bail set at $750,000. His record was lengthy: assault, assault with a deadly weapon, criminal trespass, theft, burglary, retaliation, you name it. His most recent offense was assault with a deadly weapon on his girlfriend, and she had a restraining order on him. We assumed he was one of the original two squatters Gavin had met, and now his buddy was the one left living there.
It felt good to be cleaning out the house, doing something. It also felt like we were somewhere on the fringes of safety, which was not a good feeling. I left that day thinking, Maybe this will work. Maybe he’ll come back and see his stuff on the curb and just leave.
Nope. Before Gavin and Sonny could finish the work, the squatter came walking down the street and started yelling. “Where’s my motherfucking property?!” he screamed over and over. Gavin, trying to keep cool, kept answering, “This is my property, and I don’t know what you are talking about.” The man was about 6-foot-5 and had a giant star tattooed on his face. He bowed up to Gavin, looking as if he was going to hit him. He screamed, over and over, “Where’s my PlayStation? Where’s my TV? Where’s my motherfucking property? You think I’m a bitch?”
Gavin tried to file a criminal trespass police report in September and in October, but the police told him they “weren’t taking those right now.”
Neighbors called the police. The responding officers ended up calling their sergeant. Lo and behold, the same conclusions were drawn. Gavin said he owned the property and that the man was trespassing, and the squatter said he had a lease and showed the cops a document on his phone. This time the police even tried to locate a phone number and address for the fictional landlord, Cyntex Global. They were unsuccessful. Cyntex doesn’t exist. No matter. The police said there was nothing they could do. It was a civil matter. Most of the neighbors had retreated into their houses when the police arrived, and a few put the squatter’s items back out on their curbs for him to reclaim. Gavin came home, once again defeated.
We try to be patient, to wait out a legal remedy, but a few times a month we both just sit dumbfounded by the situation facing us. My thoughts run the gamut from praying to God to help us to plotting a violent revenge. I have fantasized about strangling the squatters with my bare hands. The conclusion I always come to is that I have everything to lose, and the squatters have nothing. Except our house, of course.
One day in June, I was researching eviction processes, and I called the court in which we’d filed, as I did every week, sometimes twice a week, to see if we were any closer to getting on the court’s docket. Most of the time, the phone would just ring and ring and ring. If I did get someone to answer, he’d tell me nothing was happening. You know, because we are in COVID World. Well, this day in June, the clerk answered and said, “Ma’am, it looks like you had a hearing yesterday, but it was dismissed for want of prosecution.” “What? No, that can’t be correct,” I said. He repeated, yes, the hearing had been the previous day, and now the case was dismissed because no one had shown up. “Wait a second,” I said. “We were never told! I call here every week! And my attorney does, too! You all never even answer the phone!” “Sorry,” he said, with no explanation, and hung up.
Our attorney was boiling mad when I told him what the clerk had said, and he wrote a scathing letter to the court. The only options were to refile or appeal. We chose to appeal and continue to be in the court’s holding pattern. To this day, they haven’t scheduled our case.
We’ve called our city councilwoman and a councilman we went to law school with. They were sympathetic but couldn’t help us. Gavin tried to file a criminal trespass police report in September and in October, but the police told him they “weren’t taking those right now.” Recently I told another attorney friend this story, and she contacted a friend at Dallas Water Utilities. They did some investigating and found that the squatters had been stealing water all this time. They went out one day in October and turned off the water. Now a big orange Home Depot bucket sits on the front porch. Our guess is that the squatter uses it to manually flush the toilet.
We did finally figure out the identity of the current squatter. Star Face’s rap sheet runs to multiple pages, filled with convictions for evading arrest, possession of marijuana and heroin, assault, and many, many criminal trespasses. This isn’t the first house he has helped himself to.
For now, all we can really do is wait. Gavin’s dad continues to live in a Medicaid bed in a shared room in a small nursing home. We pay to insure the house, and we recently got our tax bill from the Dallas Central Appraisal District. I can’t wait to argue with DCAD this spring about the value of our house. Under the “desirability” category of our assessment, DCAD rates our house as “poor.” Given the current resident, I’d say it should be lowered to “dangerous.”
I drive by the cottage occasionally, but I never see the squatter. Just the orange bucket and the porch light that’s always on. As I roll slowly by, hoping to catch a glimpse of him, I imagine breaking all the windows or burning the place to the ground. Honestly, though, I’m a peaceful person. If I saw him and decided to stop, the only thing I’d be able to do is ask questions. Why is he doing this, and why does he think it’s OK? It’s so personal for me and my family. Does he not see it that way, living in another person’s house?
But I suspect our squatter wouldn’t be able to answer those questions. Not to my satisfaction anyway, not in this COVID World. So I shake my head and just keep driving.
Write to [email protected]. This story appeared in the January issue of D Magazine with the headline “Stolen House.”