Florida legislators can't anticipate every legal loophole that some unscrupulous person will exploit, which is why they have to stay nimble and respond to scams when they arise. The latest one demanding a legislative response is an opening in state foreclosure law that allows investors to get title to properties for pennies on the dollar by satisfying outstanding homeowners association dues, then exploit those properties and profit until a bank forecloses. This has got to be fixed to protect homeowners, renters and other creditors.
If there is a moral to this tale, it's never underestimate the ingenuity of people looking to take advantage of a system that is under stress, such as the foreclosure process during the housing market meltdown in Florida. The sheer volume of foreclosures in the state, combined with the national robo-signing scandal, has resulted in banks taking years to foreclose on delinquent homeowners. This limbo has created serious problems for homeowners and condominium associations, which rely on regular dues for everything from maintenance of common areas to other expenses.
Florida law allows homeowners associations to foreclose on properties when dues are in arrears. But the associations are not required to alert the mortgage-holding banks of their intentions. That's where the scammers come in.
A series of reports by St. Petersburg Times staff writers Kris Hundley and Susan Taylor Martin exposed the way investor groups, some made up of people with criminal histories, gain title to millions of dollars of property through homeowners association foreclosures, with the intention of pocketing rent money on the property until the first mortgage holder forecloses. Hundley and Martin documented situations where investors obtained title to a $1.2 million bayfront home in Apollo Beach for $10,010 and a 3,700-square-foot North Tampa home for $8,090.
Had the first mortgage holder known about the foreclosure action, it likely would have paid the outstanding balances in order to protect its larger financial interests, or would have hurried its own foreclosure along. Homeowners associations don't want to have to alert the first mortgage holders, since if the bank gets a foreclosure judgment first, the associations usually get nothing. But the current situation is untenable. The investors holding title have little interest in maintaining the property since it will be foreclosed upon soon enough; renters are pawns in a scheme that makes them vulnerable to unwarranted eviction.
State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, promises to propose legislation to require homeowners associations to notify lenders when they move to foreclose. Though an attorney for a homeowners association raised concerns about the legality of this, Fasano should pursue it.
Tenants also need the protection of better notice. A federal law passed in 2009 gives tenants 90 days notice before they can be evicted when a property they are renting is foreclosed upon. And they can stay for the term of the lease if the new owner isn't planning to move in. But tenants should be told before they sign a lease that a rental has a mortgage in arrears.
Lawmakers are always playing catchup to people looking to make an easy buck at someone else's expense.
It's time for them to do their job again and outlaw this loophole scam.