Squatters Rights? Local couple evicted more than dozen times

PITTSBURGH — People who move into houses and then don’t pay rent are known as squatters.

Some local landlords claim a couple in our area has left a trail of unpaid rent for more than a decade. Target 11 Investigator Rick Earle talked to some of the homeowners and he tracked down the couple in question.

Home Damaged

A home video of spray-painted walls, kitchen cabinets and scattered debris shows what a local landlord found after she finally evicted tenants from her home in North Versailles.

“'Squatters rule the world.' Isn’t that lovely?” said the landlord, Dorothy, in the video. “Broken doors and dog feces all over the house.”

The ordeal began last June when she said a couple approached her about renting.

“They were real nice and all that,” Dorothy said. “All wanting to be helpful and relieve my stress. I couldn’t believe it, she even hugged me and he hugged me.”

Dorothy got sick and two months later when she returned, she said they had moved in, changed the locks and still hadn’t paid. Dorothy said she started texting them, asking for the money, but wouldn’t hear anything. She eventually went to the magistrate’s office in August and the judge agreed to evict them. The couple appealed and the judge gave them more time to pay.

“He would allow them every extension they wanted,” said Dorothy. “It’s ridiculous. If you move in and you don’t pay your rent now, you should be evicted.”

Kevin Brunner also rented a home to the same couple and never received a dime. It took him about six months to evict them as well.

“They looked at me like the criminal,” said Brunner.

Multiple Evictions

Target 11 discovered that same couple has been evicted more than a dozen times dating back to 2007 from homes in Allegheny, Westmoreland and Washington counties, owing more than $22,000 in back rent.

The couple said they never intended to hurt anybody. They admit they took advantage of many landlords, and they blame most of their problems on addiction.

“You’ve probably got 10 to 15 to 20 landlords that you stiffed. What do you say to them?” asked reporter Rick Earle.

TENANT RIGHTS, LAWS AND PROTECTIONS: PENNSYLVANIA

“I’m incredibly sorry. If I could change it, I would,” said the woman squatter in question.

We tracked down the couple and the wife agreed to talk to us as long as we concealed her identity. See what she had to say and how she claims the court system allowed her to get away with it.

“I’ve been a scam artist most of my adult life,” the woman said to Earle. “I could convince you, you worked for Channel Two, that’s how good I was.”

Fixing the System

Landlords like Dorothy want to see the system fixed. She said she finally got rid of the couple in November. Dorothy only was paid one month’s rent after the couple lived there for almost six months.

“It’s like no landlord should have to go through what I’ve been through,” said Dorothy. “It’s a nightmare, a total nightmare.”

Brunner owns 19 rental properties and says dealing with the court system in Allegheny County is almost as troubling as some of the tenants he’s had.

“There are people out there that play the system,” he said.

When a tenant appeals an eviction to common pleas court, the law requires them to continue to pay the monthly rent into an escrow account with the clerk of courts. But Brunner and other landlords claim that doesn’t always happen in Allegheny County.

“They’re going down there, saying, ‘Yea, I paid them’ with no proof,” said Brunner. “And the court’s accepting that.”

Brookline District Justice Jim Motznik deals with landlord-tenant disputes and said low income tenants may get a reduced rate, but others should be paying up to appeal.

“They’re supposed to come up with the rent that’s in arrears -- or three months rent,” said Motznik. “Whatever is less in order to file the appeal and then they can stay where they are at. If they’re not putting that money up, that’s something you need to take to the Clerk of Courts.”

Motznik added sometimes there are people that play the system, but that is why the appeal process is important.

We reached out to the Director of the Department of Court Records in Allegheny Count, and he said occasionally the courts will take a signed affidavit from a tenant stating that they paid the landlord. If a tenant is lying it’s up to the landlord to challenge it in court.

But some landlords say that doesn’t happen in other counties and they argue that the system in Allegheny County is tilted in the tenant’s favor.

"It drains you not only financially but emotionally," said Dorothy. "I was having to go down to court like every other week."

That same tenant who never paid Brunner was also evicted from a house in North Versailles and accused of causing $10,000 worth of damage -- including a message the landlord found spray painted on the wall.

In the end Brunner said he never got a dime and they lived in his home rent-free for nearly six months.

The Director of Court Records in Allegheny County added if a tenant who owes back rent has a steady job, landlords can always petition the courts to garnish wages. It can take years to collect, but it’s one way to recoup the money.

PA Attorney Generals’ Office pamphlet on Tenant Rights in Residential Leases: