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Why have squatters been allowed to take over this family's home?

Guests at a Clearwater house refused to leave when the owner died in November. The heirs haven’t been able to evict them.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Guests at a Clearwater house refused to leave when the owner died in November. The heirs haven’t been able to evict them.

Near as anyone can tell, the water and electricity have been turned off for months. A tree around back has fallen on the house's roof, and rats are making themselves at home. Human waste has shown up in odd places outside, and the front door has a series of sticky notes addressed to Clearwater police.

From that remarkably low starting point, the story still manages to go downhill.

You see, the occupants of this nondescript house on a quiet street in a neighborhood off U.S. 19 are not the owners. Nor, neighbors say, do they have a lease.

They are sort of just … hunkered down. And all of the king's horses and all of the city's men haven't been able to un-hunker them.

Ultimately, this is a story about well-meaning laws. And the — shall we say — opportunistic people who use them to their advantage.

"Those people have no business being there,'' said Patricia Freeman of Spring Hill, whose parents bought the house nearly 40 years ago.

"They have no lease, no paperwork that says they have any right to stay there. And yet they can live in the house, and we're told we're not allowed to go inside. This was my mom and dad's home. Their stuff is still in the house, and these people are going through it all. I saw one of my dad's old ties sticking out of a garbage can the other day.

"This is unbelievable. The law is protecting the wrong people.''

The story begins last fall with Freeman's brother David Heitzman, who inherited the house when his father died in 2008. With his health declining late last year, Heitzman apparently invited a couple of old friends to stay with him.

When Heitzman passed away in November, the friends refused to leave. And, somewhere along the line, they forbade his relatives from re-entering the home.

Believe it or not, this is their right under Florida's property laws. And, in a way, these laws do make sense. For instance, they can keep a landlord who just purchased a property from immediately evicting a longtime tenant. Or they can protect someone who is not listed on a mortgage or lease in the event of a breakup or an unexpected death.

As it happens, these protections also tie law enforcement's hands when it comes to folks with less-substantial claims on a home.

Ask Clearwater police about this mess, and they say it is a civil matter. Ask the city attorney's office and the answer is much the same. Code enforcement has some issues with the situation, but wheels turn slowly over there.

So you end up with a home that is quickly deteriorating and neighbors who say they occasionally wake to the sound of strangers retching in a nearby back yard. Civil proceedings have encountered snags, so the impasse is at four months and counting.

"This is a nice little neighborhood. Nothing fancy, just a nice mix of first-time homeowners and retirees living quietly,'' said Theresa Hamilton, who lives next door. "We've been forced to deal with this crap for too long now. The police and code people have been very nice, very sympathetic, but they say their hands are tied.

"Meanwhile, the house is becoming so rundown you can hear the rats crawling under our fences at night. Do you really want to do this to property values? Does Clearwater want its neighborhoods to get to the point where people are moving away?''

As it turns out, this situation was destined for complications because Heitzman died without a will. That meant an attorney, contacted by Heitzman's sister Gloria, had to petition the court to appoint one of his two daughters as the estate's personal representative before beginning the court procedure, known as ejectment, to have the occupants removed.

In the ensuing months, the story became even more tangled as Gloria also passed away. Around that time, the court discovered Heitzman had a son whose whereabouts were unknown. The judge demanded this other heir be found before moving forward.

In the interim, code enforcement folks are making routine visits. Police calls are frequent. The other day, neighbors say, the occupants took a washing machine out of the house and whisked it away in a waiting van. I attempted to contact the occupants this month but no one answered knocks on the door.

If, or when, the Heitzman family regains possession of the home, they could conceivably sue for losses or damages. Yet no one is holding their breath on that possibility.

Meanwhile, Freeman now has two estates to deal with. Along with the issues her brother left behind, she is trying to square away her sister's home just down the street. While working both fronts, she apparently took too long to have the water turned off after her sister died in January.

This, as it turns out, was a problem municipal workers could move quickly to correct.

Freeman was notified a lien was being placed on her sister's house.

Why have squatters been allowed to take over this family's home? 03/21/14 [Last modified: Saturday, March 22, 2014 8:43pm]

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