Amencia Larose bought a house in Wyandanch in 2005 for $140,000 with plans to expand, improve and sell it.
But when she couldn't find a buyer and renters stopped paying, the home sat vacant until last year when Larose, 52, found herself facing the most frightening consequence of Long Island's abandoned house crisis: squatters.
People who illegally occupy a home create problems for neighborhood residents ranging from the aggravation of noise to the danger of gang activity. Squatters often damage the homes, remove anything of value and make the house unsafe for first responders or neighborhood children who venture inside.
Under New York's real property law, anyone living in a residence for 30 days or more is considered a tenant and can only be removed through a court eviction proceeding, which can take six months or longer, according to local officials and real estate agents.
Police and local officials put squatters in several categories: people who are homeless and looking for a place to live; those looking to set up drug dealing or other illegal activity; people duped into renting by someone posing as the homeowner; and those for whom squatting is a full-time endeavor.
Larose, who works for the state's Long Island Developmental Disabilities Service Office, said she believes it was the last type of squatter who put her "through hell" by moving into her house, tearing off doors, pulling up flooring, breaking fixtures and flooding the house.
In 2013 she started working with her mortgage servicer, Bank of America, to sell the house for less than the amount she owed -- what's known as a short sale. A bank appraiser said the property was worth $63,000, according to Larose's real estate agent, Elma Phifer of Blackstone Property Inc. in Greenlawn.
But the bank wouldn't accept offers at that price. Bank of America spokesman Rick Simon said Freddie Mac, a federally chartered corporation that buys mortgages, had a set minimum for the house "considerably higher" than $63,000.
As a result, the house sat empty for six months. Larose checked on it weekly and said in April she noticed curtains in the front window and a new front door.
A woman came to the door and said she was renting the house. She'd had the water and electricity turned on in her name, Larose said.
Larose called the police who said they could only investigate the squatter's claims. One officer told Larose he recognized the woman and that she had similarly moved into other houses.
Larose gave police copies of her deed, home insurance and property tax bills. She was told to start eviction proceedings.
As she waited for a court date, she continued to check on the house. Each time more people were there and a late model Mercedes-Benz was in the driveway, Larose said. The squatters yelled and threatened to beat her up, telling her she was trespassing, she said.
"The whole thing was just so unreal," she said. "It's like a nightmare and every day you hope you wake up from it."
Before she could get an eviction order, the squatter who had met Larose at the front door signed a court agreement to leave the house on Oct. 15. But when Larose showed up at the house that day, she said, the woman told her she wasn't leaving.
Larose said she paid more than $400 to have the Suffolk County Sheriff's Office remove the woman, a process that can take one to two months. The department charges fees based on the number of occupants, travel distance and amount of possessions that have to be removed.
The squatters left on their own two weeks later, before being evicted.
When Larose went to the house with police, the door was locked. Officers refused to let her in, saying that without the key, the home was still in the squatters' possession, she said. Larose looked in the window and saw the kitchen faucet running into a plugged sink and flooding the home.
Larose got the Suffolk County Water Authority to shut off the water. Days later, a mattress that had been outside was now inside the house, Larose said. The squatters were back.
A week after that, Larose noticed the front door was wide open. She called the police and was finally able to get inside.
What she saw horrified her: missing bedroom and closet doors, cracked window panes, torn flooring and carpet. There was a hole in a bedroom ceiling, a chunk of the bathroom sink had broken off and scribble marks covered the walls. The toilet was full of waste and the bathtub crusted in varying shades of brown. The oven and refrigerator Larose had purchased were gone. Even the smoke detectors were missing.
Left behind were beer cans, takeout food containers, diapers and clothing strewn across the floors, ashtrays full of cigarette butts, and a broken baby carrier.
"You put so much energy, so much of your finances, into everything and somebody just ruins it," Larose said. "It's just sickening."
Squatters a big challenge
Bank of America's Simon said squatters are one of the biggest challenges in the preservation of homes going through the foreclosure process. "Even when properties are reasonably secured and under routine inspection, complete security cannot be guaranteed," he wrote in an email.
Without the bank having title to the property, the squatters "have to be treated as if they are bona fide occupants," Simon said. "The current owner, not the mortgage servicer, has the legal authority to request eviction."
Police said their role is limited in most squatter cases. "They say, 'I've been living here for six months and I've been paying rent' -- well how are we going to disprove that?" said Insp. Gerard Gigante, commanding officer of Suffolk County Police First District. "We're generally not going to throw anyone out on their feet based on the opinion of what that patrol officer thinks. It's going to get a follow-up investigation."
Unless there's obvious illegal activity taking place such as selling drugs, squatter cases are rarely resolved as quickly as neighbors would like, he said.
"Chances are it's been going on for a while so another day, week, or two weeks or a month isn't going to make a difference," Gigante said. "The process can slow down a little bit because it's not an emergency."
Police said banks often decline to file charges against those who break in and steal copper and other materials from a house in the foreclosure process. Suffolk First Precinct Officer Jeff Blaskiewicz, who serves as a community liaison, said police try to get banks to sign trespassing affidavits so they can keep them on file and pursue criminal charges on any future incidents. But those are "few and far between" he said.
"It's frustrating for everybody," Blaskiewicz said. "They don't really want to make arrests, they just want people out of the buildings."
Wells Fargo spokesman James Hines said in an email that the bank considers affidavits on a case-by-case basis.
Without a complainant, police cannot pursue charges.
"We can't go to a house and lock someone up for trespassing" without the owner filing a complaint, Gigante said. "The neighbor's word isn't good enough."
Police said the easiest solution -- boarding up the house -- often is not one that neighbors welcome.
"People don't want the squatters in there but they don't want the house boarded-up either," said Insp. Robert Brown, commanding officer of Suffolk County Police Third Precinct.
Conducting patrol checks
Gigante said his officers conduct patrol checks on abandoned houses that are known to have problems. The checks are reviewed monthly and if Gigante feels some homes are still vulnerable to illegal activity, he will increase the effort.
Police said they advise homeowners and banks to pursue eviction of squatters. But the process can be prolonged by savvy squatters who "use every legal obstacle they possibly can," said Valley Stream Village Clerk Robert Barra.
As a result, some banks have long had a "cash for keys" policy, real estate agents said, offering money to squatters who refuse to move out. The pay can be several thousand dollars and accomplished squatters know which banks pay the most, targeting those properties, officials said.
Wells Fargo's Hines said the bank offers "financial relocation assistance to non-owner occupants."
A state judge recently recommended cash for keys, said Allison Schoenthal, an attorney who represents lenders for Hogan Lovells in Manhattan. The judge acknowledged that a squatter was breaking the law by occupying a bank-owned house in Queens, but suggested the lender pay the squatter the equivalent of moving expenses or one to two months rent, she said.
Squatters' ability to get utility service in homes they occupy is another frustration to municipal officials. The squatters often show phony leases or aren't required to provide more than an ID to get water or power turned on.
Mastic Beach code enforcement officers last year responded to reports from residents about an electrical wire running across one of the busiest roads in the village. They found 17 people living in a house and stealing the electricity from another abandoned home across the street, Mayor Bill Biondi said.
Utilities often do not require proof of a lease or deed unless there is an outstanding balance for a home or a person requesting service.
When water service is requested, the Suffolk County Water Authority requires a driver's license number, Social Security number or other form of valid identification for service to start, spokesman Tim Motz said in an email.
PSEG Long Island has a similar policy, spokesman Jeff Weir said, pointing to the Tariff for Electric Service and the state Home Energy Fair Practices Act that dictate many of their policies. Both laws were enacted to protect consumers and ensure they continue to receive gas and electric service during disputes.
If a homeowner reports someone squatting in their house, PSEG cannot turn the power off, Weir said. Electricity would only be turned off if a home is unoccupied. The water authority has a similar policy.
"We can't simply turn the water off due to the complexity and legality of landlord/tenant relations," Motz said. Courts, not utilities, have the authority to decide who is entitled to occupy a property, Motz said.
"The bottom line is we do what we can to assist the proper authorities," he said. "When a town provides us a list of premises that are abandoned or at which they suspect illegal occupancy, we'll make every effort to prevent new accounts from being started at those premises."
Squatters often just move to another vacant home, sometimes in the same neighborhood.
In the past two years, about a third of the abandoned houses in Babylon Town have had squatters in them, said Edward Buturla, lead inspector with the town's environmental control department. Sometimes they use a phony lease and rent the house to someone else, he said. One squatter moved among five different houses in the town.
The problem has been acute in the Parkdale neighborhood of North Babylon. In late 2013, neighbors mobilized after finding squatters had moved into several vacant homes, with one family, including young children, moving back and forth between houses. When neighbors started documenting the situation, the squatters called police, alleging harassment, officials said.
"It's a magnified example of what can happen in a very small neighborhood if you have a number of these homes that are abandoned where squatters take up residence," said Babylon Supervisor Rich Schaffer. "It not only affects the property values of the neighborhood but the public safety of the neighborhood."
As a result of the town working with the community, many of the homes were boarded-up. The Parkdale Civic Association became more vigilant and a Neighborhood Watch was formed, association president Terry McSweeney said.
But staying vigilant comes with a cost, Schaffer said. "It takes time away from a lot of things that people should be doing," he said. "They've got kids, they've got jobs, after school activities -- why should they have to deal with this?"
Larose said until she is able to sell her Wyandanch house, she worries about other squatters moving in and causing even more damage.
"This is what happens when the system fails you," she said. "These people have all the rights. Once they go inside, they have all the rights."
With Maura McDermott
and Deon J. Hampton
Eviction process under New York state law
Under the state's real property laws, individuals living in a residence for 30 days are considered tenants and can only be removed through a court eviction proceedings.
Squatters must be first given a 10-day notice to "quit" the property.
If the squatter doesn't leave, the matter moves into the local district court.
The case usually begins within weeks, but there can be delays and that take months.
When a judgment is made for the squatters to leave, the order is sent to the sheriff's office.
The sheriff's office serves notice and the squatters have 72 hours to voluntarily vacate the property.
If the squatters fail to leave, the sheriff's office -- which may take weeks or months to act -- can remove the squatters and their possessions from the property.
Source: Warren Berger, Central Islip attorney who handles eviction cases; New York state real property laws