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Squatters took over a home in an Orlando neighborhood. Getting them out took months.

Squatters have been taking over empty rental homes in an Orlando neighborhood. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

On a hot Thursday in July, the house at 5536 Kingswood Drive in Orlando was empty. Deputy Jacob Snavely of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and a contractor from property owner Sylvan Homes put back into place the front doors, which the deputy had helped remove the night before to make sure no one would be there in the morning.

For months, residents of Kingswood Manor say squatters turned this house into an ongoing party, a high volume of cars coming and going at all hours, trash strewn about the property and loud gatherings on the front lawn that shattered the peace in one of Orlando’s oldest subdivisions.

Experts say people illegally moving into vacant housing is a growing issue in Orange County, one that can become a major headache for neighbors, a problem compounded by empty investment homes and hard-to-reach landlords.

“Squatter houses are definitely something I’m dealing with a lot,” Snavely said. “This is a big problem in Orange County. And with foreclosures going up and rental prices going up, it’s definitely expanding.”

‘Casing the place’

Natasha Jenkins, who lives next door to 5536 Kingswood, first grew suspicious when she saw the same man parked in the driveway of the empty rental home every day for a month.

The home was bought last October for $381,000 by Sylvan Homes, a national investor in single-family rentals. After extensive renovations, Sylvan put the property up for rent on Feb. 16 for $3,731.

That’s when the mysterious car started showing up.

At first, Jenkins thought the driver might be interested in renting the house. “I’m thinking maybe he wants to rent it but he just doesn’t have the deposit right now, so he’s watching to see if anyone else takes it,” she said.

In retrospect, Jenkins said, “They were casing the place.”

Jenkins, 49, has lived in Kingswood Manor since the 1990s. She was already here when the man who would be her husband moved down from New York. The two met and eventually moved into their current address, with Jenkins’ mother across the street.

“Kingswood has always been a good neighborhood,” Jenkins said. “Most of the people who have been here have been for a long time.”

Built in the 1950s and ’60s, Kingswood features more than 600 homes, mostly catering to older residents and families.

But Snavely says the section of Lee Road that Kingswood connects to, just west of I-4, receives a lot of calls to the sheriff’s office. “You have this neighborhood of 600 homes that … could become victims of crime in short order,” he said.

Jenkins wasn’t thinking about that when the man in the driveway next door approached her mother and said he would be moving in. Even when she saw him trying to break open the lockbox on the door, she gave him the benefit of the doubt.

“My theory is that if someone has put a [substantial] investment into this property, then if there really is something wrong, it’s going to be found out sooner rather than later,” Jenkins said.

After 30 days, the mysterious car in the driveway was replaced with a U-Haul moving truck that Jenkins says was in front of the property for more than a month. Ten to 15 people were suddenly at the house, mostly young men and teenagers, a revolving cast that would be out front most days and nights.

“The traffic was just in volumes,” Jenkins said. “Different cars, fancy cars.”

For a while, Jenkins and her husband seemed to be the only ones on the street concerned about the house. “I think the rest of the neighborhood realized something was wrong when the trash started to pile up,” she said.

‘It was emboldening them’

Deputy Snavely routinely works in Kingswood, regularly attending their HOA meetings to see what issues residents might be having. When he learned about the activity at 5536, he paid a visit. He says a man came to the door and produced a lease saying he was renting the house.

Jenkins saw that the home was still being listed for rent, so she contacted Sylvan, and after several conversations, says she learned that no one was supposed to be in the house.

What she couldn’t understand was why the company didn’t immediately have the squatters removed. “I have no idea what’s going on,” she said. “We’ve even got the cop scratching his head.”

Mark Lippman, an Orlando attorney working with Sylvan on this matter, said issues like this often fly under the radar of large property managers, even when contact has been made.

“It’s more of a corporate issue than anything else,” he said. “If the corporation is a national company and they have thousands of properties, it sometimes takes a bit for longer for it to be addressed.”

A property manager for Sylvan who is familiar with this incident did not return a call for this story.

As the weeks and months went on, the residents at 5536 became more disruptive, according to neighbors. In one incident, pitbulls that the people were training on the front lawn attacked another resident walking his dog. When he asked them to do something about it, Jenkins says they began berating the man.

“They were being met with no consequences,” Jenkins said. “It was emboldening them.”

Eventually, Snavely got the story on the house from one of the squatters. The property was being used by concert promoters to bring in talent and give them a place to party while they were in town.

One man was always at the house, whether anyone else was or not, a guard to maintain the claim to the property and make sure no one was sniffing around, according to Snavely. “The others would send him UberEats,” Snavely said.

On July 14, Sylvan finally took back possession of the house. No one was there that day because Snavely had told them ahead of time the date the house was going to be reclaimed.

Taking action

Susan Giddings has lived in Kingswood for 17 years. When she lost her paralegal job in the pandemic, she decided to get more involved with the neighborhood, becoming treasure of the HOA and a caretaker for the association’s pool and 4-acre park.

Now she says she spends hours each day checking on vacant homes. Over the past year, other homes in the neighborhood have been victims of squatters, and it has created a network of watchdogs who call Giddings when something seems suspicious.

“We all just started to ask what we could do to help,” she said. “Because we came together, everybody got a little bit bolder and realized they had a say.”

Snavely says that neighborhood involvement is an effective deterrent at preventing squatting. Simple things like mowing lawns or putting a neighbors car outside an empty house can make a home less attractive to mischief.

“It’s a neighborly thing you can do for the community and build that connection with your neighbors,” Snavely said.

He cautions, however, against civilians being too aggressive in removing squatters themselves. He says in some cases, he’s seen it almost become a “combat” situation. “You’re going to be trying this criminal problem, but in doing so you’re going to get yourself arrested,” he said.

The bigger issue, Snavely says, is figuring out who owns a property when it’s vacant, especially if it’s been purchased by a large investor. “Generally speaking, from our point of view, the most difficult part of the process is finding the agent of the property,” he said. “I have had to go to international lengths to get done what needs to get done.”

Snavely said that squatters come from all backgrounds, and they aren’t always malicious. A common cause of squatting now is people posting fake ads for properties online. A renter pays a deposit, moves into a house that the scam artist has opened, and finds out later they don’t have a real lease for the place.

“You really feel for these people who may have spent their last dollar getting in there,” Snavely said.

Lippman, who says he deals with squatting cases almost daily, said his firm will often work with the deceived tenant when this happens. “We feel for them and we do what we can for them, including giving them more time to move,” he said. “But with the way apartments are these days, it’s hard to find anything for anybody.”

Snavely said in other cases, “Usually, it’s kids with a bad home life just looking for a place to hang out.”

Snavely says that dealing with these situations takes more than a call to the cops. If someone prints up a fake lease, “For the average cop who has 30 minutes to spend on that call before they jump onto the next one, that’s often enough,” he said.

He recommends reaching out through the sheriff’s department’s website and contacting a special projects deputy like himself.

The real trick, he said, he acting sooner rather than later. “When people start dealing with this, it’s going to cause a lot of emotional distress,” he said.


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