The Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

No more land grabs for squatters


OUR OPINION: Miami-Dade property appraiser right to move swiftly on ‘adverse possession’ cases

As the foreclosure mess continues in South Florida, it’s overwhelming the courts while scammers and squatters are finding loopholes in the law to try to live the high life on the cheap.

Squatters like the ones recently found living in a Coral Gables mansion claiming they were renting from owners who don’t exist. Scammers who rent abandoned homes they do not own to unsuspecting renters while the true homeowners are in the foreclosure process.

Then there was the case of a pool home in foreclosure “rented” to a pimp and hookers just up the street from the Broward County property appraiser’s home.

The Florida Legislature can’t continue to ignore this mess.

At least Miami-Dade County Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera is moving swiftly to set the legal records straight in the county and end some of the abuses that his office can control: the so-called adverse possession claims.

Mr. Lopez-Cantera did the necessary due diligence to get rid of 44 percent of all adverse-possession claims that were pending since he took office in January. It wasn’t that difficult to do. He checked with the Tax Collector’s Office to see who had been paying the property taxes on those homes to determine the true owners.

The “adverse possession” gimmick has served scammers well. They just have to come in to the Property Appraiser’s Office, sign some forms, and — presto! — they can make a claim on the land and the building that sits on it.

Except they never owned the property, which likely is waiting for resolution in the foreclosure process.

The adverse possession law dates back to 1876, when quick access to property records over the Internet couldn’t even be imagined. In truth, the law doesn’t protect swindlers, but it does become a costly mess for the true homeowners to set the record straight in court.

That’s why Mr. Lopez-Cantera’s due diligence is a good first step in stopping the abuse.

If this law is to remain on the books, then it should be updated for the 21st century to put the burden on those seeking to take “adverse possession” of property to prove that there are legitimate reasons for them to take ownership.

But the deeper problem is the volume of foreclosures, which is starting to tick up again as the robo-signing cases are being cleared after banks pushed through paperwork without doing their own due diligence to ensure homeowners knew they were facing foreclosure.

The Legislature should find a way to speed up the process. Funding to hire more temporary judges to review foreclosure cases would help.

But there also might be some nonjudicial means to move the process along if all parties agree.

What’s needed is a clear, timely way to decrease the ever-growing volume of distressed properties in a fair manner to homeowners who bought too high and now can’t afford to pay for homes that aren’t worth as much in today’s market as their home loans.

Several bills working their way through the Legislature seek to help. One, HB87, would offer guarantees to borrowers that their foreclosure case will be heard in court if they meet the criteria for a “meritorious defense.” There’s also a Senate bill that addresses the issue.

Florida is carrying about a quarter of the nation’s foreclosures. And the backlog of cases, now estimated at 371,000, is hurting families and slowing down the economic recovery.

There’s no more time to waste.

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