With Florida foreclosure rates on the rise, especially in Orlando, just about everyone has a vacant house on their block. Or a house that should be vacant.

Authorities in Ocoee, a town just 13 miles from Orlando, believe the family of squatters they apprehended last week is part of a large network of squatters in the area. The network may include members of the same family in at least three other houses in the area. With thousands of vacant houses in the state, the arrests may just be the tip of the iceberg.

While squatters have no legal authority to be in those houses, police cannot act unless a crime has been committed or a legitimate complaint has been made. Neither can a lender investigate without visible signs of disrepair.

In the case last week, a mortgage company representative said that the house was monitored about once a month from the outside; on the last visit, it looked as if someone were living there, but, if no repair or maintenance was needed, the company could not investigate further. 

Squatters do not, it seems, always want to fly under the radar. In one case, squatters ran a day-care center out of a vacant home (shut down in July by the Florida Department of Children and Families). Another family stole power by jerry-rigging the box after the electricity was shut off.

In the worst case reported, the family trashed their temporary home — toilets filled with excrement, a pit bull tied up, starving and living in his own waste in the garage. “They lived in squalor for eight months,” said an investigator. “You can’t imagine how people can live like that with children.” 

With so many homeowners facing unmanageable debt, the number of vacant homes in Orlando and statewide isn’t likely to decline much in the next few months. Come winter, more homeless people will be looking for places to stay, and more homes will be vulnerable to squatters.

Resource: Orlando Sentinel “Vacant, Foreclosed Homes Attract Homeless Squatters” 8/20/10