Squatter claims upscale house for $16

In this photo taken Wednesday, Kenneth Robinson vacuums the spacious living room of the home he’s occupying in Flower Mound. Associated Press
In this photo taken Wednesday, Kenneth Robinson vacuums the spacious living room of the home he’s occupying in Flower Mound.
Associated Press

By Nomaan Merchant
Associated Press

FLOWER MOUND — After paying $16 to file a one-page claim to an empty, $340,000 home in an upscale Dallas suburb, Kenneth Robinson moved in furniture, hung a “No Trespassing” sign in the front window and invited television cameras inside for a tour.

He quickly turned into something of a local celebrity, creating a website, https://16dollarhouse.com, where he sold an e-book and offered training sessions for would-be squatters. And while real estate experts and authorities say he’s misusing the law, Robinson appears to have inspired dozens of imitators who moved into Dallas-Fort Worth area homes — some of which were still occupied by their owners.

But Robinson’s time in the house ran out Monday.

Bank of America wants possession after foreclosing on the home last month, and a judge on Monday gave Robinson until Feb. 13 to appeal or move out. Rather than wait to be evicted, Robinson slipped out before sunrise Monday, skipped a morning court hearing and refused to say where he was moving next.

“It’s been a huge learning experience,” he said in a phone call with reporters.

On his website, Robinson describes himself as a savvy investor who’s part of a “paradigm shift” in which people have taken over abandoned homes.

Last June, under a law known as adverse possession, he filed a claim in court promising to pay taxes and homeowners’ association fees while living in the house. He kept the lawn outside mowed, and the front clean.

Robinson spoke to The Associated Press last week while standing at the front door of the two-story, 3,200-square-foot home with a backyard pool. He declined to discuss his background or say how much money he made from book sales or seminars related to his takeover.

He said he started his website — which describes him as “poised, measured, insightful and wise” — to keep the media and others from misleading the public about his story.

“They think some bum off the street came and paid $15 to get a $300,000 house by filing a piece of paperwork,” Robinson said. “That is not the case. That is the sum of what happened.”

Robinson’s website says he’s not a lawyer and isn’t offering legal advice but has done real estate research.

Real estate experts say he’s got the law just plain wrong.

Adverse possession statutes can be found in most states, said Brian C. Rider, a real estate lawyer and professor at the University of Texas. Someone who has openly taken charge of abandoned land for an extended period of time — using a driveway on a neighbor’s property, for example — could try to claim that land later, he said.

But it takes a long time to establish those rights, typically 10 years in Texas. Until then, anyone trying to stake claim to a piece of property owned by someone else is just a squatter, Rider said.

Arlington real estate attorney Grey Pierson said the law is often used to resolve disputes between homeowners over driveways, lawns or other property with shared boundaries — not to take someone’s house.

It’s not clear how long the home in Flower Mound was empty before Robinson moved in. Its last owner, William Ferguson, bought the house for $332,000 in 2005 and appeared to run into trouble making payments about three years later, according to county records. Ferguson did not have a listed phone number, and the records don’t indicate where he moved.

County clerks in North Texas said they have seen such a spike in adverse possession filings that they’ve stopped accepting the claims without prosecutors’ approval. In a handful of cases, squatters entered homes that weren’t abandoned, but left empty for a few days.

“We just had people making bad decisions, taking a portion of the law and applying it in a way that was not legal,” Tarrant County clerk Mary Louise Garcia said.

In one case, an Arlington travel nurse came home in September to find her locks changed and two TVs missing, according to a police report. Authorities say Anthony Brown came to the front door and told her he had claimed the home and she was trespassing.

When the nurse asked Brown for his paperwork, he offered to return the home for $2,000, police said. Brown, who was arrested in October, does not have an attorney listed and did not respond to messages left on his cellphone.

Tarrant County constable Clint Burgess said authorities have interviewed a handful of people claiming “adverse possession” who said they spoke to Robinson. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported Robinson attended a December eviction hearing for two charged with burglary. Robinson said then he was attending to show support for the couple.

He says now that he doesn’t want to be an example to others.

“The truth is I don’t want people to think that they should go out there and do anything based on what I did,” he said last week. “Whether they do it or whether they’re not is solely up to them.”

Robinson hasn’t been charged with a crime but police said they responded to several calls from his neighbors. One neighbor, Chris Custard, attended Monday’s hearing and was smiling after the eviction was ordered.

“We’re going to throw a party,” he said.