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No easy fix for squatters: Communities look for new ways to combat persistent problem

An incident in Volcano has spurred discussions and concerns about people squatting in vacant, abandoned and deteriorated properties.

Neighbors in Volcano sprung into action after a community member was allegedly attacked and sexually assaulted by James Michael Taylor, a homeless man who was known to be squatting in Volcano.

“Well, after the initial shock, there was a lot of unrest in the community,” said Linda Fuller, coordinator of the Volcano Neighborhood Watch. “We knew he had been squatting, and police questioned him before the incident, but there was nothing they could do to prove he was trespassing.”

According to Fuller, several people reported Taylor to the police for verbal altercations, public intoxication and threats. Three people, including the victim, filed temporary restraining orders.

Taylor is still in custody after pleading not guilty to two counts of first-degree sexual assault. He also pleaded not guilty to single counts of attempted first-degree sexual assault, kidnapping, third-degree sexual assault and third-degree assault.

On April 17, Judge Peter Kubota lowered Taylor’s bail from $187,000 to $50,000 and set his trial for Sept. 9.

“The whole community has been a victim of this person, and we were really happy when his original judge set bail as high as he did,” Fuller said. “When the new judge lowered his bail, it sent the community into another uproar.”

Volcano has empty houses, closed vacation rentals and abandoned homes that can be trespassed by people who know of the property locations, according to community members.

“We are concerned with repeat crime in the area and squatters, who seem to have more rights than residents,” Fuller said. “Taylor (allegedly) was squatting in a home where the owner is deceased, so there was no proof that he was trespassing.”

Although squatting is illegal in Hawaii, law enforcement cannot arrest someone unless there is proof that they are not supposed to be there. This has become frustrating for many communities across the county.

“James Taylor is really the straw that broke the camel’s back in our community,” Fuller said. “Our officers have been bending over backwards to help us, and I don’t think it’s fair that they are blamed. James Taylor is the person to blame. He’s the one that did this.”

Law
enforcement
and squatting

Law enforcement has been dealing with issues caused by squatting countywide. Capt. John Briski in Puna has worked closely with communities to address issues the problem while educating people about laws relating to the issue.

“We can know fully that someone is squatting, but in every crime, you need a victim,” Capt. Briski said. “When someone is trespassing, the owner is the victim. If owners don’t cooperate, then we don’t have a victim or a case for trespass.”

One of the most time consuming parts of addressing squatting can be finding and contacting owners of the vacant, abandoned, or deteriorated properties, or VAD properties.

Officers can find information from the Real Property Tax Office, and once owners are identified, the hardest part is contacting them. In many cases, an owner may be deceased or a bank owns the property.

“Officers are spending an exorbitant amount of time tracking people down, calling banks or other mainland entities to find possible owners,” Briski said. “It’s time consuming, and it’s rare that we are able to find the people we need.”

Police in Puna welcome any information gathered by neighborhood watch groups and community associations, who usually have a better understanding of their subdivisions and the vacant properties in their areas.

“Communication is always the best, and we get the bulk of our information from neighborhood watch groups,” Briski said. “If these groups think there is a squatter and have the time to track the owner, that’s extremely helpful to us.”

Police can become just as frustrated with the lack of squatting laws. However, there are many instances when squatting is not a source of criminal activity.

Many squatters enter property temporarily and take care of it while they are there. Some do not bother anyone or are family units looking to put a roof over their children’s heads.

“Prices of homes have increased, and it isn’t easy to move away. Many people decide to squat out of necessity, which is difficult and sad to see,” Briski said. “We have to make sure we’re conscious of who we’re dealing with. There is no one law that would fix or even address every situation.”

Addressing
VAD properties

Hawaii County Councilwoman Ashley Kierkowicz wants to address the issue of squatting at its core since there is no single soultion.

Kierkowicz has made squatting a part of her platform since she ran for council in 2018. After the incident in Volcano, her office has been leading the effort to address the systemic issue.

Kierkowicz’s office applied to participate in a four-day intensive Vacant Property Leadership Institute through the Center for Community Progress and National League of Cities. Leaders from the four counties were invited to participate in a virtual cohort.

County leaders will meet to discuss equitable solutions to vacant property issues. The cohort will help leaders better understand the interconnected causes of VAD properties, as well as learn how to assess and reform systems at the state and local level that contribute to vacancy.

“We want to address the issue of VAD properties, because that is something we can control,” Kierkowicz said. “This will help us all learn how to better utilize the spaces we have, prevent issues from arising in the first place, and help us turn liabilities into assets.”

Since all counties are invited to the virtual cohort, Kierkowicz will maintain contact with council members from across the state to discuss different strategies and to prepare any legislation that might be presented to the state Legislature.

Some initiatives Kierkowicz and her office have developed and discussed include creating a registry of vacant properties, making a mapping tool to help mitigate the risks in the community, and creating a system to acquire donated vacant properties from owners.

“Our goal right now is to address the low-hanging fruit to help mitigate risks,” Kierkowicz said. “I think that means having a position that coordinates over vacant properties and works closely with neighborhood watches and organizations that already know about these problematic areas.”

Kierkowicz has worked with neighborhood watch groups, law enforcement, community organizations and nonprofits to discuss the best course of action for the county to address squatting.

“The fact that the community will be part of the solution will empower the public and make for a more sustainable solution,” Kierkowicz said. “We want to collaborate county to county since this issue requires holistic problem solving that will involve several private and public entities. It’s a systemic issue, not a one-size-fits-all.”

Although the county wants to mitigate the risks that come with VAD properties, many people have to continue living next to known squatters who may be conducting criminal activity.

Squatting
prevention

Judi Houle is the president of the Hawaii Paradise Park Neighborhood Watch and has had a lot of experience with people squatting in vacant homes in the subdivision.

“Squatting is illegal, but criminals will take advantage of the slow legal system and absentee owners,” Houle said. “Neighbors of squatter houses need to gather relevant information and observe suspicious activity in vacant homes, or else nothing will get done.”

Houle suggests that homeowners reach out to their neighbors and get contact information from the people on the block. If someone only uses their house part-time, Houle suggests that owners rent out the house or make it look occupied and secured.

“If the house has been vacant a long time, and suddenly you hear a generator or activity inside the house, call the owner and call the police,” Houle said. “If the owner is giving up the house and no longer lives in Hawaii, be their local representative and call the police.”

For communities where squatting is a prevalent issue, Houle suggests people join the neighborhood watch, form block watches and meet with their community police officer.

Houle also has experience with finding owners through the Real Property Tax Office to help alleviate the legwork for the police department.

“Sometimes, squatting can go on for years, and it’s the neighbors and their community that suffers from late night noise, drug trafficking, threats and degraded property,” Houle said. “We need to fix this broken system of ownership, lack of accountability and require a legal local property representative before it becomes a safety and security issue.”

Protecting the
community

On May 20, Mayor Mitch Roth attended a Volcano Neighborhood Watch meeting to address concerns and answer questions from community members who feel they are targets for squatters and other criminal activity.

To address concerns on policing, Roth decided to give the 25 attendees some advice on watching out for each other.

“The number one policing agency in this country are you guys, the community,” Roth said. “A community becomes the eyes and ears for police, but I think there is so much more than that. You have to be part of the solution by looking at problems, coming up with ideas and acting on those ideas.”

To help empower communities, Roth wants the county to begin offering training in Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. The program is a multidisciplinary approach to crime prevention that uses urban and architectural design and the management of built and natural environments.

CPTED strategies aim to reduce victimization, deter offender decisions that precede criminal acts, and build a sense of community among inhabitants so they can gain territorial control of areas, reduce crime and minimize fear of crime.

“You know what’s going on, you’re here every day. Rather than just being the eyes and ears, you can be part of the solution,” Roth said. “When communities are empowered to act, it’s been proven time and time again that you can decrease crime.”

Roth said he would like to take steps to alleviate the issue of squatters and VAD properties by potentially passing a law that would require part-time Hawaii homeowners to provide an emergency contact number for someone living on the island.

“One of the things I’m looking at is how to get information from homeowners,” Roth said. “I think possibly passing a law that would require homeowners in Hawaii to provide an emergency contact would be necessary for the health and safety of people living on the island.”

This potential law could come in handy for any emergency such as natural disasters, fires or burglaries. If squatters were present when they should not be, it would be much easier for police to get in contact with owners.

The Volcano meeting brought up a lot of issues that the residents are experiencing, and many community members were able to get to know their community police officer, acquire contacts from the county, and learn about their own Neighborhood Watch.

After the alleged sexual assault in April, the Volcano Neighborhood Watch ramped up its efforts, with volunteers watching over the community at every hour. During the meeting, Fuller asked for more volunteers to patrol the town.

Josh Naggs recently moved to Volcano with his family and decided to volunteer for the Neighborhood Watch after last the meeting.

“I moved here with my family not long ago, and we care about this community and want to play a part in keeping it safe,” Naggs said. “The fact is one of our members was attacked, and that’s scary.”

Some Hawaii County Council members will be attending next month’s Neighborhood Watch meeting in Volcano to continue the discussion about squatting along with any other concerns facing the community.

Email Kelsey Walling at kwalling@hawaiitribune-herald.com
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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