Oppenheim Law

Editorial: Forget ‘squatters.’ Florida should get a little ‘adverse’ with lenders

News   •   Jun 03, 2013 14:49 EDT

This editorial was written by Rhonda Swan and originally appeared in the Palm Beach Post on May 31, 2013

Jason Friedman’s dream of owning a home lasted only two weeks before Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputies labeled him a squatter and removed him from the vacant, 3,400-square-foot Acreage house he had tried to acquire through Florida’s adverse possession law.

It is the latest South Florida case involving individuals using the archaic law to benefit from the state’s foreclosure crisis. Adverse possession allows a person to file a claim of ownership on an abandoned or vacant property and take permanent ownership after paying taxes and caring for the property for seven years. The law was created more than a century ago, when handwritten property records were easily lost or damaged and allowed land to be kept in productive use when ownership was in doubt.

The Legislature passed a bill amending the law. It is awaiting Gov. Rick Scott’s signature, and legislators hope that it will deter other potential squatters. Squatting, however, should not be a main concern. The more important goal should be to encourage lenders to expedite foreclosures, and get properties on the market and into the hands of responsible owners.

House Bill 903, which would prohibit individuals filing adverse possession claims from occupying the affected properties for seven years, misses the mark. While it likely would prevent people from using adverse possession to take over homes they can’t live in for seven years, it would do nothing to prevent banks from keeping abandoned homes in limbo for that long.

The Palm Beach County Clerk’s office this week auctioned off homes that have been in foreclosure since 2008. Though some borrowers stay in their homes mortgage-free for years while lenders dawdle, many abandon their properties, leaving them ripe for thieves, gangs and squatters who have no intention of maintaining them.

Mr. Friedman, though, moved his family into the house in the 12000 block of 54th Street North because the home he was renting went into foreclosure. As The Post’s Kimberly Miller reported, he followed the adverse possession statute by protecting the house with a new fence that he bought for nearly $3,000 and filing a claim with the property appraiser’s office. He was taking care of the property, having cleaned the disgusting pool. Surely, the neighbors preferred that the house be in Mr. Friedman’s hands.

But West Palm Beach resident Devon Anderson, the owner of record who had apparently left the property to the ravages of nature, objected to Mr. Friedman’s occupancy, and called police. With Mr. Friedman arrested, the house is empty again and the pool will be slimy again.

Roy Oppenheim, a foreclosure defense attorney, noted that there are cases when it’s preferable to have a so-called squatter in the neighborhood. “In some weird ways these people are actually helping the community,” he said. “They could actually improve the quality of life in a particular community as opposed to the bank having a boarded-up home.” Gov. Scott should veto the bill, and next year ask for changes that hold lenders accountable.

Rhonda Swan for The Post Editorial Board