Pinellas County is owed an astounding $46.8 million in outstanding liens levied against more than 300 homes found to be in violation of various property codes. That's an impressive number, but it's phantom money. The largest liens will never be fully satisfied because the fines are far more than the value of the homes themselves, giving scofflaw homeowners little incentive to perform the improvements needed to bring the properties up to code. Meanwhile, county officials refuse to even talk to beleaguered homeowners until they bring their properties into code compliance. That's shortsighted and unproductive. The county needs to find a better way to encourage responsible home ownership rather than cling to an onerous and unrealistic fine structure.
As the Tampa Bay Times' Anne Lindberg reported, during the 2010-11 fiscal year Pinellas County collected only $435,000 of the estimated $46.8 million in code violation liens. Meanwhile hundreds of homes in unincorporated Pinellas County continue to fall into greater disrepair as the liens against them continue to skyrocket, often by as much as $2,000 a day. For example, one Pinellas Park area home owned by a 70-year-old woman has run up $1.2 million in liens on a property valued at $35,000. A foreclosed $47,000 Lealman property taken over by Goldman Sachs Mortgage Co. remains saddled with $561,000 in liens.
Collecting the fines poses several hurdles for the county. About a third of the properties are worth far less than the liens against them. Other liens are essentially uncollectable because the homes have homestead exemptions that protect the owner against government foreclosure. And the remaining homes may have an outstanding mortgage that takes precedence over county code liens in the event of a foreclosure.
As the liens mount with owners disinclined to bring homes up to code, surrounding property market valuations are put at greater risk. Few buyers are going to be interested in purchasing properties entangled with six-figure, or greater, government liens. This is no way to breathe life into a struggling real estate market.
It makes no sense to impose draconian fines that will never be collected and make it virtually impossible to sell the distressed property. The county should pursue a more enlightened course of working with property owners to correct code violations by negotiating a more reasonable lien policy and providing help to solve problems before the houses deteriorate even further. That's not altruism. That's protecting Pinellas County property values.