Housing

One Florida County Keeps Foreclosure-Stricken Neighborhoods Afloat

Miami-Dade County is keeping its neighborhoods fit despite the default-mortgage mess.
by | December 2010

When it comes to housing markets, there’s no lack of bad news for Miami-Dade County. Its home state of Florida has higher foreclosure rates than 48 other states, and the region has the seventh highest foreclosure rate in the nation. But despite the pain the mortgage foreclosure crisis has caused -- and continues to cause -- Miami-Dade finds itself one step ahead of most localities. A simple program it implemented two years ago is helping the county keep its foreclosure-impacted neighborhoods stable.

In communities where repossessions run high, vacated homes typically become eyesores. The unkempt lawns, broken doors and windows, and overall unsightly and unsafe properties put neighborhoods in danger of vandalism and declining property values -- which not only hurts residents trying to sell their own homes, but also can further destabilize a county’s property tax base.

Florida counties have an additional problem: As wind speeds pick up during hurricane season, scattered debris from deteriorated property can become dangerous projectiles.

To keep these problems in check, Miami-Dade County created the Foreclosure Registry, a database that tracks foreclosed homes at risk of becoming, or that already have become, deteriorated. Under the registry’s rules, any bank or lending institution that files a foreclosure action against a homeowner must also register the dwelling with the county Building and Neighborhood Compliance Department within 30 days of a foreclosure notice. The registration recognizes that once the home becomes vacant, the bank or lender is the responsible party -- not only for the usual legal and financial issues, but also for the property’s upkeep.

Here’s how the program works:

- Once a home is registered, the Building and Neighborhood Compliance Department sends an inspector to the property.

- The inspector looks at specific code points including: the structural condition of the home, windows and doors, pool barriers, yard debris, trash, abandoned property, lawn condition and the swale area.

- Any severely deteriorated home is immediately repaired and the responsible party is billed -- the homeowner if the property is occupied, or the bank or lender if the property is vacant.

- In most cases, after the inspection, a letter is sent to the responsible party indicating what problems must be remedied. The letter also notes that a reinspection will take place in 30 days. If the home has not been brought up to code at the reinspection, a violation notice is issued, followed by a warning and finally a civil citation if the responsible party takes no action.

The county is not relying on the goodwill of lenders to participate in the registry -- there’s a $500 fine for those who fail to register. Also, the county is not counting solely on its own resources to run it: There is a fee of $125 per registered dwelling. By the end of September, some 15,000 homes had been registered, bringing in more than $1.8 million.

To keep the program’s costs low, the county relied on existing infrastructure when setting it up. The costs incurred came from the software and hardware necessary to build an e-ticketing system for inspectors, which the county says greatly increases productivity.

The hardware included 72 laptops with printers, along with antennas and other equipment allowing the laptops to work in county vehicles while inspectors are in the field. The e-ticketing system lets code enforcement officers research the registry or violation status of a property while onsite. After completing an inspection, the officer can update information about the property immediately, thus reducing future work and potential errors. The total cost for equipment and software was less than $800,000, and the county estimates the program brings an annual efficiency savings of $500,000.

The only other costs the county incurs are on a case-by-case basis. Through the registry, the county must send an inspector to each home and pay for clerical processing of each registry entry. The cost for a property to undergo only one inspection, meaning that no violations are found, is $83.62.

Prior to implementing the registry, the county held open meetings with the public and lending institutions to discuss their concerns and make sure everyone understood the new ordinance’s mission. The biggest concern, according to Maria De La Milera, compliance services and communications manager with Miami-Dade County, was that most banks and lending institutions had never been regulated this way. “And now there would be an ordinance that they would have to take care of the property.”

Since the registry started, however, banks and lending institutions have cooperated. The county has continued outreach, ensuring that new real estate agents and other organizations are aware of the registry’s requirements. A website was created to indicate what must be maintained on the property and to what level, and includes the form to register a foreclosed property. As of late September, banks and lending institutions have been able to register their property online and pay the $125 registration fee electronically.

Florida and Miami-Dade County continue to be inundated with foreclosures. They are also struggling with the latest problems spawned by nationwide revelations that lenders’ mortgage documents for some of the foreclosures may not have been legally proper or complete.

That said, the county can still tally some success from the 2-year-old program. Today when inspectors arrive at foreclosed properties, they are finding that more than three-quarters of them have no violations -- a vast improvement over the program’s first year. This is an indication that the program is working, according to De La Milera, who notes that the number of complaints from people worried about their families’ safety have been greatly reduced.

An unexpected benefit of the program has also materialized -- collaboration between county agencies. The Miami-Dade County Clerk of Courts and property appraiser have found new ways to work together while trying to create an integrated county code enforcement process that can apply to all properties equally.

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