CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Residents in a Ballantyne neighborhood are calling for a rental company to up its security measures after they say squatters took over a rental property next door.
WCNC Charlotte recently reported on a mother getting scammed by a fake landlord that claimed to own a house that is owned by FirstKey Homes. The victim moved into the house after the scammer gave her the code to the house's lock box, which can be obtained through FirstKey's website.
Following that report, the Ballantyne neighbors reached out to WCNC Charlotte's Julia Kauffman about a FirstKey property in their neighborhood.
The property has been vacant for several months, according to neighbors, but was taken over by squatters last winter.
"They just took possession of the house one day,” Patrick Arney said.
Arney, who lives a couple doors down, said the situation was unsettling for many because "we really didn't know who they were.”
Neighbors said the squatters claimed to have been duped by a rental scam, gaining access to the house through the lockbox. However, Steve Brock was reluctant to believe them, because he said the squatters trashed the house and stayed for months.
"It was destroyed,” Brock claimed.
Squatters are people who take over a property without paying rent or having legal ownership. They have rights in North Carolina, meaning they can’t get arrested for living there. Instead, the homeowner must go through the judicial eviction process, which can take months.
"It can kind of make you concerned about your own welfare and what they might do,” Brock said.
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FirstKey eventually evicted the squatters. The company told WCNC Charlotte it places materials on homes and online to help educate the public on rental scams.
Jennifer DeSario, regional vice president of property operations for FirstKey Homes wrote, “we regularly visit and inspect our homes for safety, security, and general well-being.”
When asked if the company plans to get rid of coded lockboxes, DeSario said the contactless service is essential due to COVID-19.
"Maybe they should do a better job of vetting before giving out an electronic key to get in the house,” Arney suggested.
Neighbors said they’re staying vigilant and keeping an eye on the house to prevent future issues.
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There is currently no oversight for corporate rental companies like FirstKey Homes but North Carolina housing organizations are pushing for state lawmakers to change that.
WCNC Charlotte is part of seven major media companies and other local institutions producing I Can’t Afford to Live Here, a collaborative reporting project focused on solutions to the affordable housing crisis in Charlotte. It is a project of the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, which is supported by the Local Media Project, an initiative launched by the Solutions Journalism Network with support from the Knight Foundation to strengthen and reinvigorate local media ecosystems. See all of our reporting at charlottejournalism.org.