Florida is once again the foreclosure capital of the country thanks in part to Tampa Bay, where filings jumped and piled behind tens of thousands of pending cases.
Florida posted the nation's highest foreclosure rate in November for the third month in a row, with foreclosure starts climbing 6 percent over the year before, data released today from RealtyTrac shows.
Tampa Bay foreclosure filings jumped 40 percent over November 2011, with more than 2,000 new foreclosures and 1,000 repossessions. And in the three circuit courts governing Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties, court data show that the number of open foreclosure cases dropped less than 1 percent between July and November, evidence of a backlog 70,000 cases deep.
The gloomy news comes as foreclosure starts nationwide dropped to an almost six-year low, spotlighting Florida's particularly marshy slog of mortgage defaults and repossessions.
Florida housed seven of the 10 highest metropolitan foreclosure rates last month, including Jacksonville, Miami, Sarasota and Gainesville, RealtyTrac data shows. Tampa Bay ranked No. 12, with one in 294 homes facing foreclosure.
Real estate experts warned for months that banks were holding back on filing some foreclosures. Lenders did not want to add to a market already saturated with distressed homes. But the number of sales and prices in the Tampa Bay area have picked up in recent months, and the inventory of homes for sale has been pinched.
Real estate agents said resolving these foreclosure cases is the only way local neighborhoods and the housing market at large can inch back toward stability. Selling and restoring the abandoned homes is critical, they said, before the housing recovery can truly take off.
We need "to put an end to it, to get back to a normal cycle of real estate," said Keller Williams agent Scott Samuels. "People still think the world is coming to an end, but it really isn't. … There are plenty of people who pay their bills, who are healthy and will do just fine."
Court delays and the "robo-signing" scandal over shoddy foreclosure filings have dragged out many cases in recent years. Foreclosures in Florida take an average of 858 days to complete, allowing some homeowners to live for years without making mortgage payments.
New cases are then jammed onto dockets behind tens of thousands of other cases, state court data shows. By the end of October, Tampa Bay's circuit courts were closing about 2,700 cases a month, data shows. Even if new foreclosures stopped cold, it would take judges more than two years to carve through the backlog.
Lawmakers gave $4 million statewide this year to help clear the backlog, and courts like Hillsborough used their share to pay for extra court workers and senior judges.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Herbert Baumann said case managers there are actively digging up stalled foreclosures, including some more than four years old, to push to resolution.
"We need to go case by case and give everyone a chance to come in and explain what's going on," Baumann said. "It's not something we're going to be able to dramatically reduce in a short period of time."
The foreclosure backlog has whittled down from the housing crisis' peak. And Tampa Bay's rising home prices give agents hope that a recovery is under way.
But Baumann said not to expect the foreclosure battles to clear up overnight.
"We look forward to the day when it returns to the kind of levels we saw in 2004," Baumann said. "I'm not sure that's imminent."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 893-8252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.