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Out-squatted: This handyman squats with squatters — until they leave

Jack Flemming | Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — On a winter morning in Woodland Hills, the “Squatter Hunter” slowly approaches a posh two-story home dressed in all black, armed with a Glock 26 pistol, stun gun, pepper spray and baton. His body camera is on. His two-man squad lurks behind him.

They’ve spent four days in surveillance, learning the habits of the man squatting inside. They’ve waited for him to leave, but he never does. So they knock on the front door, and when the occupant opens it, they barge inside.

Their plan: live with the squatter. Dirty the bathroom. Take the best spot on the couch. Commandeer the TV remote. Blast music. Drink his coffee. Eat his Cheetos.

Out-squat him. And film it all for YouTube.

As the body camera footage shows, the team starts installing Ring cameras throughout the home to document every interaction. The Squatter Hunter, Flash Shelton, hands the man a lease with Shelton’s name on it.

“You’re an intruder in my house now,” he says.

Shelton explains that the man is there illegally, and the team is not going anywhere until he leaves. The squatter was out before they could even share breakfast together.

For homeowners in Southern California and beyond, run-ins with squatters can be a nightmare both emotionally and financially. For the Squatter Hunter, it’s just another day on the job.

What started as a viral YouTube video has grown into a one-of-a-kind vigilante-style service, helping homeowners boot trespassers from their property.

His motto: “If they can take a house, I can take a house.”

Flash Shelton shows off his tool belt complete with a baton at Todd Longshore Park in Santa Clarita this month. (Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Flash Shelton shows off his tool belt complete with a baton at Todd Longshore Park in Santa Clarita this month. (Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

A new identity

Shelton, a California native, understands what drives some people to squat. He said he grew up practically homeless, “moving every time the rent was due.”

At 16, he started a handyman business, and in 2009 he established the United Handyman Association, a trade organization that lobbies for handyman rights. Along the way, Shelton, 56, also worked as a bouncer, where he learned how to handle situations that could turn violent.

“I took the same deescalation courses law enforcement would take,” he said.

Shelton carries a no-nonsense demeanor and sports a thick gray goatee, a San Fernando Valley version of Josh Brolin. On his website, he poses in a black baseball cap emblazoned with the words, “GET OUT.”

His first experience with a squatter was in 2019. Shelton’s father died two years prior, and his mother moved in with him while they put her Northern California home on the market.

A woman reached out about renting it — offering repairs for free rent, since she had no money — but Shelton declined. But while the home was unoccupied, the woman broke in through the back door and moved in, furniture and all, Shelton said. He started receiving calls from real estate agents planning to show the house to prospective buyers saying they couldn’t access it because people were living inside.

He called the local sheriff’s department, but according to Shelton, they said they couldn’t enter the house since it appeared to be occupied.

Hearing nightmares about the lengthy and arduous process of dragging out an eviction in court, Shelton got creative; he had his mom write up a lease making him the official tenant of the home. That way, he could legally enter the property.

“If they’re the squatter, they have rights. So if I become the squatter on a squatter, I should have rights,” he said.

He drove 10 hours from the San Fernando Valley and slept in his Jeep outside the home, waiting for her to leave in the morning. When she did, he went inside and installed Ring cameras throughout the property.

When she returned, he explained that he was the new tenant and that she needed to move all her stuff out. Since he was now in possession of the property, he said if she returned, he would call the police for trespassing.

She left by the end of the day.

Squatting isn’t common; most housing disputes are between landlords and tenants, in which an entirely different set of rules is in play. But for homeowners who’ve dealt with an actual squatter, the process of removing them can be arduous and costly, taking weeks or months and costing tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

But Shelton made it look easy. He recorded the entire encounter and published a recap on YouTube titled, “How I removed squatters in less than a day.”

The video went viral, racking up millions of views and thousands of comments. Shelton saw an opportunity.

“I just simplified it. There’s so many people asking me why we haven’t been doing this all along,” he said. “I was just fighting for my mom in the beginning, but now I’ve reinvented myself.”

And so, the Squatter Hunter was born.

Keith Moret, a commercial real estate agent with Lyon Stahl, first heard of Shelton when he appeared on a TV news segment shortly after his YouTube video went viral. Since then, he’s been sharing the story in real estate circles.

“I’m not surprised he’s getting attention,” Moret said. “So many people are frustrated with the legal system. Attorneys are expensive, and the deck feels stacked against housing providers.”

He said squatting has become more of an issue as homelessness rises, and he takes precautions when listing buildings with vacant units. On a recent sale in East Hollywood, he hired someone to board up all the windows while the deal was in escrow.

Shelton has since started a website, squatterhunters.com, where he offers his services. Over the last year he’s conducted hundreds of Zoom consultations, talking homeowners through their squatter problems and coaching them on potential strategies.

Business is booming. He consults for free but requires clients to donate $150 to a GoFundMe advocating for squatter law change. So far, he’s raised nearly $9,000.

“Just the hope itself helps people,” he said. “People are tired of hearing that there’s nothing they can do about someone stealing their home from them.”

For clients with bigger problems, he offers to remove the squatter personally, either by himself or with a team he assembles. Over the last few months, he said he has handled about 10 jobs in California and Nevada. The minimum price for a job is around $5,000. There is no maximum.

Sometimes it takes three to four hours. Sometimes it takes weeks.

It can be costly, but Shelton said he’s encountered homeowners who’ve already sunk $100,000 into their efforts to remove a squatter through the legal system and made no progress.

“I don’t tell them what I’m doing or how I’m doing it. I just tell them to make me a leaseholder, and I handle the rest,” he said.

California’s housing crisis

Squatters aren’t created in a vacuum. More often than not, they’re the product of a brutal California housing market in which rents skyrocket and affordable housing disappears.

In L.A., the median rent is $2,750, well above the national median of $2,045, according to Zillow. Soaring home values, especially since the pandemic, have contributed to a widening wealth gap in Southern California, leaving many renters in desperate financial situations.

But there’s a big difference between tenants — even ones who stopped paying rent a long time ago — and squatters.

A tenant is someone who was invited onto a property with consent, said Mark Martinez, a tenant rights attorney. That consent can be as formal as a written lease or as casual as a verbal agreement. Even if a tenant stops paying rent, they still have protections, and landlords have to go through an official eviction process, which can take weeks or months.

For example, Elizabeth Hirschhorn, the woman who stayed in a luxury Airbnb in Brentwood for 570 days rent-free, was technically a tenant. Even though she stopped paying rent, she initially had an agreement to move in.

A squatter is essentially a trespasser, Martinez said: someone who goes into a property without permission and stays there.

Besides adverse possession, a rarely seen process in which a person can obtain a property after openly living there and paying property taxes for five years, there are no true “squatter’s rights,” Martinez said. Trespassing is illegal, and squatters cannot legally live in a home.

Still, they are innocent until proven guilty, and homeowners can’t simply go in and drag them out of the home or else they expose themselves to a potential lawsuit for harassment or assault.

In some cases, police cannot immediately remove squatters for a variety of reasons, Martinez said. For example, a squatter could claim the landlord allowed them to live there or produce a fake lease, making the situation more ambiguous.

Moret, the real estate agent, said police officers once refused to remove a squatter living beneath the carport outside one of his buildings because he didn’t have a “No Trespassing” sign posted. Another time, police said their hands were tied because residents had no proof that the squatter committed a crime, according to Moret.

Shelton said many of the homeowners he consults with claim that police aren’t able to remove squatters because they have no proof of when exactly the squatter entered the home and how long they’ve been there.

The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department did not return multiple requests for comment.

Both Shelton and Martinez said the first thing you should do if you encounter a squatter in your home is go to the police. Martinez said if the police are unable to remove them, call an attorney.

He advised against using Shelton’s services.

“It sets a stage for violence,” Martinez said. “Even if there’s not a legal risk, when you’re invading somebody’s living space, there’s always potential for physical conflict.”

Martinez acknowledges that the eviction process can be lengthy since there are multiple obstacles in the way that hinder landlords from a speedy eviction, and some civil cases can take a year or longer. But he says that’s the way it has to be — especially in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, where rents have skyrocketed.

“Tenants are consistently taken advantage of, and they need rights,” he said. “Landlords want real justice. They want squatters out immediately. But that has to be balanced with due process and being able to defend yourself in court.”

Shelton said working with an attorney to push an eviction through the court system will take months and cost a small fortune in legal fees and lost rent.

“If you find a squatter and have no clue why they’re in your home, and then you file legal documents declaring that they’re in your home, you’re giving them rights as a tenant. But I can try to get them out before anyone knows they’re there,” he said.

“Before you call a lawyer, call me.”

The Squatter Hunter method

Shelton has to be selective with the cases he takes.

First, he only deals with squatters, never tenants, and only takes on cases where nothing has been filed in court so that there’s no proof that the squatter is living in the home. If a judge has already given them tenant rights, his hands are tied on what he’s legally allowed to do.

Then, he visits the local law enforcement office and explains what he’s doing. That way, if there’s a hostile situation, police officers know his specific plans and intentions.

After that, he works with the homeowner to write up a lease declaring him the tenant and records himself signing it. If he ever goes to court, he’ll have proof that the home belongs to him.

The fact that he’s doing the work, and not the homeowner, is part of Shelton’s legal calculus. According to Martinez, California law prohibits“self-help evictions,” in which landlords try to remove a squatter themselves.

It’s one of four things he lists on his website for landlords to avoid when trying to evict a tenant: no self-help evictions, no retaliation against the tenant, no discrimination and no harassment. He added that a homeowner who hires Shelton might have vicarious liability; they didn’t kick the squatter out themselves, but someone they hired did.

So far, no squatter has taken Shelton to court — to win back possession of the home, they’d have to prove that they entered it legally. But the homeowner’s potential “vicarious liability” is one of the reasons he doesn’t identify them publicly or tell them about his plans; the less they know the better if a dispute ever goes to court.

Once the lease is signed, he turns into a private investigator, researching everything he can about the squatter: name, age, background check, criminal history, anything he can use when he finally confronts them. He interviews neighbors to learn the squatter’s habits and stakes out the house for days to see when they leave and when they return.

Shelton sometimes works solo, and if he does need help, he has a strict screening process for those who want to join an operation.

“Most guys I talk to have beer muscles and want to rip a squatter right out of the home. I need someone who can stand there and keep their mouth shut,” he said.

If he brings in someone who whips out a weapon and hurts someone, he could potentially be liable, he said.

Although every case is different, there’s generally an easy way and a hard way to remove a squatter.

The easy way: Wait for the squatter to leave the home and secure possession of the property while they’re gone. Change the locks and install security cameras.

“Now, they’re fighting to get back in instead of the homeowner fighting to get them out,” he said.

The situations are tense, but he said he stays calm. The deescalation training helps.

“I know these people didn’t wake up with the intention to ruin my day. Squatters aren’t attacking me or my family. They’re just taking advantage of a system,” he said. “The last thing I want to do is aggravate a situation that could be handled civilly, and part of that is being nice.”

The hard way: squatting with the squatter.

“If I can’t get them off the property, I’ll move in with them,” he said. “I walk in, sit on the couch, pour a bowl of cereal and say, ‘Lucy, I’m home!’”

He hands the squatter a copy of the lease and explains that he’s not going anywhere — that he’s there to make their living situation miserable and “turn it into a reality show” with cameras everywhere.

They’re typically out by the end of the day.

To help persuade squatters to leave, he offers them a deal: If they go peacefully, he’ll keep their identity a secret.

Most squatters accept. For those who don’t, he uploads their picture onto his website and their interaction onto YouTube and Instagram. He’s currently building a database of confirmed squatters so landlords can avoid renting to them in the future.

One YouTube video details a confrontation with Adam Fleischman, the former chief executive of the restaurant chain Umami Burger. In the video, Fleischman claims he had a verbal agreement to live in a Hollywood Hills home, giving him rights as a tenant, but that he didn’t have to pay rent.

In another, Shelton sneaks up on a woman entering a Culver City home through a window.

“What do you have to say for yourself?” he asks.

She doesn’t take the bait, instead responding with an onslaught of curses.

Shelton, a single father with five kids, two living at home, doesn’t want to hunt squatters forever, but demand has been overwhelming.

The end game is policy change. His GoFundMe advocates for legislation that would expand law enforcement’s ability to remove squatters and also make it easier for judges to order squatters to pay restitution.

“The whole system needs to change,” he said. “I want my name on a bill.”

©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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