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If Florida economy heads south again, is it time to fast-lane home foreclosures?

If the explosive bursting of Florida's housing bubble in 2006 continues to drive home prices south five long years later …

If the backlogged morass of foreclosures in our state's courts still shows little progress …

And if the Florida economy loses confidence again, as seems to be happening, and slips back into a deeper recession …

Maybe it's time for more drastic solutions to expedite the cleanup of our real estate mess. If Florida's housing market can't get back on its feet soon, the state runs a great risk of a long-term and dangerous slump.

Mortgage rates are remarkably low, but that's not enough to stimulate enough buying.

Housing affordability — how many people making local wages can afford a median-priced home — is returning to a more reasonable balance, but that's not enough.

Florida is one of 20 states that requires all foreclosures to move through the courts. It's time to change that. Carefully, but urgently.

Last week, Gov. Rick Scott and state legislative leaders said they will consider the idea of taking the courts out of the state's foreclosure process.

Tallahassee leaders will look at the 30 states where foreclosures take place outside the court system. One option, noted in a St. Petersburg Times story last week, is for the state to adopt a hybrid system. That's where some foreclosure cases are presided over by a judge and some cases are not. Such a system is used in 25 states.

Before everybody's feathers get ruffled, before defense lawyers and consumer activists begin snarling, let's be clear. I'm a big supporter of the little guy. In this case, in the long run, accelerating a foreclosure fix will help the little guy (and everybody else) by stabilizing more quickly Florida's disastrous housing market.

No question, hundreds of thousands of Florida homeowners facing foreclosure were railroaded for years by too many bank lenders and their robo-signing, document-lazy, mass-production law firms.

Yes, too many homeowners unfairly faced the loss of their homes, even as "rocket docket" court systems here rushed to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on handing control of homes back to mortgage lenders from owners purportedly behind on payments.

But things are changing. Chastised banks and law firms (some of the big robo-signing firms are out of business now) are supposed to be cleaning up their abusive acts.

That's why it is so critical to ensure that any steps to accelerate foreclosures in Florida be handled with proper oversight.

Just not by a court and a judge in every single case.

Why make this call to arms now? Because recovery of the Florida economy is much too slow and in danger of stalling. It's even slower than the nation's sludgelike rebound.

We've got to get a handle on this slow-motion disaster, folks.

Florida's economy needs serious CPR. Without more aggressive actions to fast-forward foreclosures and get more Florida homes back on to the private market, this state will be stuck in economic limbo.

How gloomy is the real estate scene? A survey last week of 100 economists by MacroMarkets LLC, a firm cofounded by Yale University economist Robert Shiller (as in the Case-Shiller housing index), found that housing faces a lost decade in which home prices recover just a fraction of what was lost between 2005 and 2015. The impact of such a decade, the Wall Street Journal recently reported, will leave "millions of homeowners with little, if any, equity in their homes."

Said Shiller: "Expectations for home price performance in 2011 has become somewhat less negative. Unfortunately, the average projection is somewhat more negative for each of the following four years."

That's the finding of a national survey. Florida's real estate market is worse off than the nation's, so you have to amplify that dire forecast in the case of this state's housing future. Through July 30, lenders this year had filed to foreclose on 187,463 properties in Florida.

In Tallahassee, Scott suggests that improving the foreclosure system could help speed the revival of Florida's slumping housing market and encourage more bank lending. He's probably right. But he says any changes need more study first.

A bill that could push Florida closer to a nonjudicial foreclosure system may be considered in January by lawmakers when they meet in their annual session.

Scott says it takes more than 600 days for a judicial foreclosure to be resolved. That's too long.

Proposals to reinvigorate the housing market seem to balloon in size every day.

• In a plan dubbed Operation Twist, the Federal Reserve says it will rebalance its $2.65 trillion securities portfolio by increasing its share of longer-term Treasury bonds. Why? This is another way to push down long-term interest rates and encourage more borrowing.

Will it work? It's more of the Fed's financial alchemy. It will produce a marginal gain but not much else. "This is not a rate-driven environment," says Stan Humphries, chief economist at the Zillow real estate research firm.

• The White House talks of a sweeping program to allow more Americans to refinance their mortgages at today's rates, near 60-year lows with 30-year fixed-rate loans near 4 percent.

Will it work? It's a great idea in theory, but the federal bureaucracy just can't seem to make this stuff happen. Don't hold your breath.

What won't work for Florida housing is inaction. Can we unclog the foreclosure pipeline without savaging legitimate homeowners? We better try.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

If Florida economy heads south again, is it time to fast-lane home foreclosures? 09/24/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 26, 2011 11:38am]
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