Miami-Dade property appraiser targets squatters

Life on easy street is getting tougher for squatters.

The Miami-Dade property appraiser said Tuesday he has canceled 71 claims filed by individuals staking out properties under a provision of Florida law known as “adverse possession.”

That wiped out 44 percent of all 160 adverse-possession claims on record in Miami-Dade County.

Carlos Lopez-Cantera, who became property appraiser in January, said he threw out the adverse-possession filings after checking with the Miami-Dade tax collector and determining the real owners were paying their property taxes, thus putting the properties in question off limits for those looking to make a land grab.

The property appraiser said the cancellations of claims, made “in response to the growing problem with squatters,” should help clarify that those folks have no legitimate dibs on the properties.

One of the key requirements of the adverse-possession law is that the person aspiring to take over the property must pay the taxes for seven years.

Other requirements include that the claimant must openly have continued, exclusive possession of the property.

The statute, which dates to 1876, was aimed at dealing with abandoned property. But after the housing meltdown, with the courts sorting through a mountain of foreclosures and lenders overwhelmed by soured mortgages, some clever folks see opportunity.

“There is a whole cottage industry of people trying to take advantage of the huge number of foreclosed properties in South Florida,” said Lopez-Cantera, former Florida House majority leader who won election last November over incumbent Pedro Garcia.

Miami real estate attorney Ben Solomon said much of the hullabaloo stems from misperceptions about the adverse-possession law and “the naive, high hopes of squatters with foreclosed properties. People get excited.”

But the law requires much more than simply paying the taxes for seven years and claiming title. “You have to be in the property seven years in an open and notorious fashion. You don’t just breeze by once in a while.” Among other things, he said, “If a lender has a mortgage recorded, you cannot adversely possess their interest in the property.’’

In any case, adverse-possession claims are on the rise. Lopez-Cantera said his office logged 41 in the first three months of the year, more than half of the total for 2012.

Lopez-Cantera is sending letters to notify those whose claims were canceled that the jig is up. He also forwarded a list of the invalid claims to Miami-Dade police “to assist them in their efforts to deal with those who are misusing adverse-possession claims.’’

Adverse possession is one of a variety of tactics squatters use. As The Miami Herald reported March 24, a limited partnership called Presscott Rosche appears to have laid claim to multiple Miami-Dade properties by, among other things, forging deeds. Lopez-Cantera said that matter — which is under police scrutiny — doesn’t involve adverse possession: “The guy is brazenly recording fake deeds,” he said.

The property appraiser’s move to cancel adverse-possession claims comes amid a broader crackdown on squatters and other opportunists.

The Florida Legislature is weighing a bill cosponsored by Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, and Rep. Daniel Davis, R-Jacksonville, that would stiffen the conditions under which adverse possession could be used.

Broward Property Appraiser Lori Parrish, who has been advocating legislation to rein in squatters, said her office has been checking tax records for several years and dismissing claims when the real owner or mortgage company is paying the taxes.

“It’s just been a nightmare. People who own property have to hire an attorney to evict people who have no business being there,” she said.

Parrish said she has firsthand knowledge: “They moved in across from me, two houses up and over. The person rented it to a pimp and two hookers for $500 a month last year. A two-story house with a pool. Wouldn’t you like a deal like that?”

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