For years, the City Beautiful has been battling banks in possession of not-so-beautiful properties.
It’s an issue the city of Coral Gables has struggled with — getting major banks to keep foreclosed properties in their care up to code.
City officials say the banks would rather pay fines of $150 a day then spend more money than that to bring the properties into compliance.
“We’re not just talking about the paint or the grass,” City Attorney Craig Leen said. “We’re talking about properties with structural defects that could bring in squatters, put people’s safety at risk, lower the property values of the surrounding homes, and furthermore decrease the quality of life in that neighborhood.”
As of Jan. 13, the likelihood of that pattern might change, according to Leen, who crafted an ordinance proposed by Commissioner Patricia Keon that would force banks to better comply with the law.
“Before, all we could do is fine the bank, but now, this ordinance allows us to seize the property and sue the bank,” he said. “It basically tells banks and mortgage holders that you can’t violate the law for a long period of time and have no consequences whatsoever.”
The new law, which passed on unanimously and is effective immediately, protects neighborhoods from being harmed because of the lack of security and adequate maintenance of abandoned and foreclosed properties.
“We want to ensure that properties are lawfully maintained pursuant to the law,” Leen said, noting that there are many non-homesteaded properties that are vacant and have multiple city code violations.
The ordinance covers any non-homesteaded property that has had two or more violations for more than six months. The city would then have to make a finding that substantially proves the property is putting the community’s health, welfare and safety at risk. Then, a court hearing could occur, which could eventually be followed by a jury trial.
If the city prevails in the jury trial, Coral Gables could possibly seize the property, fix it up or auction it off to a party that would bring it into compliance.
If at any time prior to the final trial the bank agrees to bring it into compliance and does so, then the case would be dropped and the bank could keep the property.
“That’s why I like the ordinance. We have an ability to enforce the law,” Leen said.
One example is 1044 Cotorro Ave, an abandoned property near the French Village.
“The property has been abandoned for several years. The structure of the building has started to fall down. It’s not a building, its only a husk of a building. It’s missing the interior; it’s deteriorating. There are boards on the windows. This building needs substantial renovation.”
As of December, the city has 13 properties on its watch list. Many have accumulated fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars, Leen said.
Leen stressed that above all, the issue of abandoned properties goes beyond aesthetics.
“At the end this about protecting our residents,” Leen said. “Its about doing what’s right, about caring about your neighbor, about a bank doing the right thing, instead of trying to protect its pocketbook.”