Foreclosed and abandoned homes are becoming a big problem for local governments. An abandoned home with a pool is a breeding ground for mosquitoes and a potential drowning hazard. An abandoned home without boarded-up windows is an open invitation to thieves and squatters. Unkempt yards can lower neighbors' property values. Clearwater officials looking for a way to keep foreclosed properties safe and presentable may consider a tool being used in a few other Florida cities: a foreclosure registry.
Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Coral Springs are among the 13 local governments in Florida that have new foreclosure registry ordinances on their books. Others, including Hillsborough County, are working on drafts. Treasure Island is the only Pinellas County city that has adopted an ordinance.
Such ordinances usually require owners to register their properties with the local government within days after the foreclosure process is initiated. In Treasure Island, the registrant has to pay a $100 annual fee to the city. Failure to register and pay the fee carries a $500 fine.
Treasure Island adopted the ordinance in December 2008 as a last resort. An estimated 4 percent of the city's homes were in foreclosure then and many were not being maintained. When city employees called the lenders to ask them to keep up the properties, "they were hung up on," said city attorney Maura Kiefer.
Clearwater staffers have had a little success making personal appeals to lenders, but in other cases just finding out who owns a property can require hours on the telephone. Persuading owners to maintain the properties is another matter. With more than 1,300 foreclosed or abandoned homes in the city, Mayor Frank Hibbard said Clearwater must be proactive and tackle the problem now because it leads to urban blight and affects property values.
The Clearwater staff has been working on a registration ordinance similar to ones being adopted around the country. Registration provides the local government with the name of a responsible party, who can then be contacted if there is a problem with the property.
Registration fees may range from $100 or less to several thousand dollars, depending on what costs the government is trying to recoup. Some just want to cover the cost of sending out an inspector to verify that the property has been secured. Others want to cover the costs incurred when city employees have to secure or maintain properties because the owner will not. Last year, Clearwater spent an average of $951 working on 33 foreclosed or abandoned properties — boarding up windows, draining pools or mowing grass.
Why not just charge the owners with code violations and fine them? Often when a property is in foreclosure, it is difficult to determine who is the legal owner at any given time, so the local government cannot determine whom to charge with the violation. Also complicating the situation is that lenders are regarded as victims in foreclosure cases, so it may not be possible to slap them with code violations and fines and make it stick. That leaves local governments in the difficult position of having to negotiate with lenders to try to persuade them to adequately secure and maintain foreclosed properties. With so many properties in foreclosure, that's a tough sell.
Registration ordinances are a creative way around the code enforcement issue and for now, may be the best tool local governments have to cope with growing numbers of derelict properties.