Florida lawmakers consider accelerating foreclosures

Lawmakers in Florida are considering measures this week to accelerate foreclosures in the state, one of the hardest hit by the mortgage crisis, underscoring the tug of war over how to spur a housing recovery while protecting the rights of struggling homeowners.

It takes roughly two years to push a foreclosure through Florida’s clogged court system. In a state with a backlog of 368,000 cases and a quarter of the country’s foreclosures, that means a housing crisis with no end in sight.

Proponents of measures such as those included in the Florida bill, known as HB 213, argue that prolonging foreclosures means delaying economic recovery, and that the faster ailing markets hit bottom, the faster the healing process can begin.

Last week, the bill overwhelmingly passed in the House. Similar legislation awaits a vote in the Senate during the jampacked final week of the legislative session, which ends Friday.

Among other elements, the bill empowers any lien holder — including condominium associations and homeowners associations as well as banks — to seek expedited foreclosures, including on properties that are deemed abandoned. It would require banks to provide accurate and complete information to courts at the beginning of the foreclosure process, rather than piecemeal filings that often occur throughout the course of each case.

In addition, the legislation would shorten the time — from five years to one — in which banks could sue delinquent borrowers for the difference between how much they owed on a property and what it sold for at a foreclosure sale.

“I feel strongly that we need to do this,” said state Rep. Kathleen Passidomo (R), who co-sponsored the bill. “We need to get these properties back in the stream of commerce.”

States across the country have tried various approaches to deal with the increasing delays involved in carrying out foreclosures. Courts in New York, for instance, recently announced a plan that would give judges more discretion to propel cases forward and would require banks to designate representatives with the power to resolve foreclosure cases.

But for now, long backlogs remain in many states. In places such as New York and New Jersey, it can take nearly three years to fully complete the foreclosure process. In other states such as Texas, it can take less than 100 days.

The Florida legislation has faced criticism from housing and consumer advocates, some of whom descended on the state capitol last month to protest the bill. They have dubbed it the “unfair foreclosure act” and argue that the bill would create more work for judges, make it more difficult for homeowners to contest foreclosures, and lessen scrutiny of the same banks and lenders whose flawed and fraudulent legal filings prompted national outrage.

“I think we all agree the backlog is a problem,” said Alice Vickers, a lawyer with the Florida Consumer Action Network. “Everyone in Florida would like to see this problem resolved and see our economy get better. But I don’t think this is going to do it. . . . There’s really nothing in the bill that benefits the homeowner.”

Critics are concerned that homeowners who have been misled or mistreated by financial firms would be left behind if the legal process were put into overdrive.

In many states, foreclosures do not require a judicial review, which usually amounts to faster timelines. But in Florida and nearly two dozen other states, judges must sign off on foreclosure proceedings, an approach meant to ensure due process but that has resulted in years of delays.

Tom Ice, who runs a foreclosure defense law firm in South Florida, said the debate over HB 213 underscores a fight that has persisted in the years since the housing bust, not just in Florida but across the country.

“The battle all along has been due process versus efficiency,” Ice said. “Due process takes time. You have to have hearings, you have to have discovery. When you rush to judgment, due process suffers. What we need are more judges, more courtrooms . . . more ways to deliver due process efficiently.”

Passidomo said she tried to craft the Florida bill in a way that walks the tightrope of preserving homeowner rights while helping shrink the crushing backlog of foreclosures in her state.

“Contrary to what my critics say, I want to make sure that borrowers have the right to defend themselves against foreclosures that have defects,” she said, adding that she consulted scores of people on both sides of the issue and repeatedly tweaked the legislation to address concerns. But she said it makes little sense not to speed up legitimate foreclosures that have languished for years, dragging down neighborhoods. “Should we just let those properties sit there abandoned?”

Brady Dennis is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on food and drug issues.
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