CLEARWATER —Soon there will be no mercy shown to owners of dilapidated homes, notoriously unkempt lots and properties that chronically violate city codes.
The city of Clearwater for the first time is developing a policy to foreclose on properties with unpaid liens that are contributing to neighborhood blight. More than 140 properties have racked up a combined $18.6 million in liens, some as old as 11 years, city officials say.
Some owners owe just a couple thousand dollars for overgrown yards or strewn debris. But nearly half of the offenders face six-figure fines for everything from abandoned homes to unsafe structures. And sending notices of violation hasn’t exactly done the trick.
"Compliance is what we seek, and that’s all we ask for," said Code Compliance Manager Terry Teunis. "There’s been years and years of blight and very little response from either the bank or property owner. It creates nuisances. You have vermin from overgrowth, or you have transients coming in and breaking in places. You have graffiti. It’s our obligation really."
Teunis said he expects the policy to come up for a February vote by City Council, a required step before the city can take foreclosure action on properties. The city is modeling its program after the one launched in St. Petersburg in 2015 that so far has taken on 243 cases — 120 of which have resulted in properties being sold at auction, according to St. Petersburg Director of Codes Compliance Assistance Rob Gerdes.
St. Petersburg has collected $1.6 million through foreclosures or by violators paying up mid-process, Gerdes said. The money has gone into the city’s general fund, minus $520,000 paid to the Weidner law firm hired to handle the program.
Gerdes said the program got started due to an increasing number of vacant lots being abandoned across St. Petersburg. The city resorted to mowing grass on its own, demolishing structures and assessing fines that often eclipsed the value of properties.
"Once we foreclosed on our liens and the property got sold and the new owner had a clear title, the new owner would be motivated to maintain the property," he said. "We’ve definitely seen less code cases after the foreclosure auction (started), so it’s working."
Along with the 120 foreclosure sales, 45 violators have paid liens prior to getting foreclosed upon, 21 have reached special agreements like committing to construct homes on the vacant lots, and about 50 are still in the legal process, Gerdes said.
While almost all of St. Petersburg’s foreclosure cases have involved vacant lots, most of Clearwater’s code liens are on homes and structures.
Teunis said Clearwater’s policy will apply to properties with low or no mortgages and will likely not target homes occupied by residents.
The largest single outstanding fine is $915,000, accumulated since 2007 at 1334 Fairmont St. The single-story, blue paneled home has chairs, plastic containers, rusty appliances and other junk strewn across the yard, breaking the code against outdoor storage.
Owner Mona Wyllie could not be reached for comment.
The structure at 309 S Pegasus Ave. has $622,000 in liens racked up, with an overgrown yard and mismatched blue paint partially splattered over gray walls.
Clearwater will face a web of legal issues when foreclosing, including how to handle homes and properties once under city ownership. But like St. Petersburg, the city is expected to hire an outside firm to oversee the process.
"We just feel like we need something else because we’re not being effective through our liens," Teunis said.
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.