Squatting Case May Lead to Changes in State Law

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Yesterday, we introduced you to Des Moines landlord Bill Moyer, who was evicting a squatter from one of his properties. He says the process of getting rid of her took two months and will cost him thousands of dollars.

The squatter, Jody Engstrom, insists she had a verbal agreement to work part time for Moyer in exchange for rent. Moyer says there was no agreement, written or otherwise. Engstrom, who according to online court documents has been sued at least 15 times in the past 12 years for failing to pay rent or to be evicted, admitted she knew Moyer wanted her out.  She even received an eviction notice, but says she didn’t have anywhere else to go.

“I just got myself in a tough situation,” Engstrom said. “When you live paycheck to paycheck and you have to spend all your money on food because you don’t have anything to refrigerate and anything to cook with it, yeah it’s really expensive to be broke. I, um, it’s embarrassing.”

Moyer says he’s more frustrated with the system than he is with Engstrom. He says he called police several times to have her removed from the property, and they told him there is nothing they can do.

Des Moines attorney Peter Berger says don’t blame the police, they can’t know the whole story. “Hypothetically here, the person may say I did have an arrangement with the landlord, landlord says no, then the police are being put in the position of being the judge and jury. And what if she’s right? She has no place to go and is on the street. That’s why there’s an eviction process,” Berger said.

Berger also said Moyer was wise to go through the legal process rather than throwing Engstrom’s things to the curb himself. Moyer could have faced charges if he had, Berger said. “The minute the landlord goes in and does something with that property, it could be destroyed, it could be criminal mischief, it could be theft, somebody else takes her property which is on the street, she loses everything,” Berger said. “The landlord puts himself or herself in a worse position.”

State Representative Bruce Hunter (D) of Des Moines says the law was designed to protect tenants from unscrupulous landlords. But in this case, he says, it obviously backfired. “There’s obviously some sort of loophole in the law that I think we need to take care of and I think it would be a bipartisan issue, at least it should be,” Hunter said.

Hunter says he plans to talk with the Landlord Association to discuss what changes should be made to the law. Berger, meanwhile, suggests that the landlord file criminal charges against the squatter, arguing that there is a pattern of fraud that is being committed. That way, Berger says, the landlord might be able to get reimbursement from the victim reparation fund.

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