Just when you thought Florida couldn’t get any more heartless there’s a new trend in which cities are aggressively foreclosing on homes for code violations, turning a tool traditionally used to correct issues of compliance into a moneymaker that is forcing people from their homes.
The foreclosures are often happening in predominantly Black areas, resulting in the seizure of ancestral homes and the potential for more gentrification. Some of the foreclosure lawsuits were triggered by violations as minor as an overgrown lawn.
What began as a reasonable goal of targeting derelict “zombie” properties owned by real-estate speculators has been turned on its head. Too often, the result has been taking properties from individual owners and, in effect, delivering them at a discount to speculators.
Those are some of the disturbing findings in a series of stories, The Foreclosure Franchise, by the Miami Herald and McClatchy Washington bureau. The unavoidable conclusion: There’s something rotten in this process, which is happening in places like Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Fort Pierce.
To make the whole thing even more unpalatable, a St. Petersburg attorney who made a name defending homeowners from foreclosure during the Great Recession is playing a central role. Though Matt Weidner once wrote blog posts on his law firm’s website saying things like, “The work of defending the helpless is the highest calling of the legal profession” — a riff on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” — he now helps cities take homes and property away from people.
If a city makes an agreement with Weidner to pursue foreclosure cases, he gets a cut of whatever is recovered, typically between 25% and 40%, whether it’s money the city was owed in fines, from a settlement or from foreclosing because the owners can’t pay. One lawyer cited in the Herald story called that a “profit motive” to file suit, and the numbers seem to back that up: Fort Pierce went from filing one such lawsuit in five years to filing 57 last year after the city hired Weidner. For comparison, the city of Miami, a much larger city, has filed fewer than 50 of these suits in the past decade.
So far, Weidner has signed up nine jurisdictions in Florida. Davie and Boca Raton may follow.
Weidner has maintained that cities need more aggressive code enforcement and that his work helps them deal with blight. No doubt that’s true in some cases, maybe even frequently. But it also serves to take away longtime, family-owned property from people like Malekia and Maya McKinney.
Their family home in St. Petersburg fell into disrepair and was demolished. After their mother died, they struggled to hold onto the lot, dreaming of building a common home on the property, with their names still etched in the sidewalk out front.
The mortgage was paid off, but property liens of $28,000 — stemming from maintenance and demolition — had accrued when their mother fell behind on the bills during cancer treatment. They talked to code enforcement. They hired a paralegal. They wrote a letter to the court begging for help. Nothing worked. In 2018, the city bought the property for $30,000. It remains vacant today.
What was the goal in that case? The McKinneys were not corporate speculators.
In another case, in Fort Pierce, a 100-year-old house is at stake after the city filed to foreclose over unpaid fines going back to 2004, some $240,000. Jessica Shroyer didn’t know about the fines, saying her father, who had owned the house, did his own maintenance.
And in Bradenton, a man who had already torn his house down once it was deemed unsafe ended up signing the vacant land over to the city four months after the foreclosure suit was filed because he owed $75,000 in fines. He said he received letters saying he had to mow his lawn and he did.
Legal help out of reach
Most of the owners in these cases can’t afford legal representation to fight back. A Herald analysis of more than 775 lawsuits filed by Weidner since 2015 shows that fewer than three in 10 of the targeted owners hire attorneys to defend them.
Should you lose your home over code violations? Maybe, if the violations are egregious and efforts of the city to resolve the matter have gone nowhere. But that’s not the picture that emerges from this reporting. Some owners felt browbeaten by a fast and aggressive legal process, while some owners were notified too late in the process to mount a meaningful defense or didn’t know they owed money or that they didn’t have a clear title to a house handed down from a previous generation.
A failure to comprehend the legalities was a theme that ran through a number of cases — something lawyers and municipalities would be fully aware of and could exploit.
Seizing homes from corporate investors who have flouted fines is one thing — they generally have the means to pay. Yanking ancestral homes or property from Floridians with deep roots in the area because they have failed to keep up with mounting fines is another. This process may represent a goldmine for local governments, but it’s a death blow to communities.
Cities have a responsibility to collect on fines, we agree. But they don’t need to check their humanity at the door.