A Key to Economic Development And Community Revitalization!
Blighted and abandoned properties likely share these common problems:
Municipalities across Florida share a common problem:
Blighted and abandoned properties that are the subject of code enforcement liens can and should be processed for quiet title as means to collect the taxpayer dollars spent on enforcement activities, to move blighted properties into productive use and to encourage positive economic development.
In most municipalities, considerable resources are devoted to the pursuit of active violations, recording liens for overgrown grass, blighted and abandoned properties and violations of ordinances. But once those liens are recorded, rarely are proactive steps taken to collect. Instead, the municipality waits for a phone call from the property owner or prospective purchaser seeking payoff. But in blighted areas in particular, those phone calls never come. As a result the property subject to the liens will likely sit in its blighted condition encumbered by ever increasing liens. The result is thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds spent on a code enforcement department for inspecting and recording liens, with some small fraction of the money owed paid to satisfy those liens trickling in over years.
These properties are a frequent source of complaints from neighbors and community members but existing code enforcement efforts have proven ineffective in bringing the properties into compliance, much less constructive use. When a property has been abandoned in this manner, the only action that will likely produce a change in the property condition is a change in ownership through a quiet title action. And, in a high percentage of cases, the only party that can deliver clear title to these properties is the municipality that holds liens against these properties.
A Key to Economic Development And Community Revitalization!
In most municipalities, considerable resources are devoted to the pursuit of active violations, recording liens for overgrown grass, blighted and abandoned properties and violations of ordinances.
But once those liens are recorded, rarely are proactive steps taken to collect. Instead, the municipality waits for a phone call from the property owner or prospective purchaser seeking payoff. But in blighted areas in particular, those phone calls never come. As a result the property subject to the liens will likely sit in its blighted condition encumbered by ever increasing liens.
The result is thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds spent on a code enforcement department for inspecting and recording liens, with some small fraction of the money owed paid to satisfy those liens trickling in over years.
Three Options with Problem Liens
Wait for liens to be paid.
Do more of the same. WAIT MORE
Implement quiet title action now!
Rather than sit back and wait for liens to be paid, communities are far better served by actively pursuing those liens through quiet title actions. In most cases, properties that are the subject of repeated code enforcement action and the largest amount of fines have been abandoned by their record title owner. The former record title owners may be deceased; they may have surrendered the property in bankruptcy; the shell company has dissolved or the record title owners otherwise have no interest in the property.
Whatever the case, a municipality has the right to collect code enforcement liens. Vacant properties contribute to blight, but properties with clear title provide new opportunities for communities to thrive.
Every municipality should know the total dollar value of all code enforcement and special assessment liens outstanding, but too often this data is not aggregated or centralized. Rather, the data is isolated and specific to each particular property. Best practices would be to understand the total aggregate value of liens and then policies developed to address each category of liens. As an example, liens with hard costs associated with them such as mowing or debris removal should immediately be moved for collection activities. Next, a community’s oldest recorded liens should be pursued, followed by liens associated with estates or defunct corporate ownership.
Even if aggregate data is not available, every code enforcement department could quickly identify their “Worst of the Worst” cases. The cases subject to active and ongoing enforcement actions should be immediately identifiable but those properties subject to the largest accumulated code fines may have been forgotten or fallen from the view of code enforcement departments when the structures have been demolished and code enforcement departments lack additional enforcement tools.
Demolition cases are the best example of these “forgotten” cases. Great effort and taxpayer expense is devoted to every condemnation and demolition action and particularly the hard costs associated with paying the demolition contractor. Every demolition case should be identified, and every demolition lien prepared for a quiet title action!
The process of taking these properties through quiet title procedures is relatively straight-forward but requires constant attention in order to bring conclusion in a timely manner. Once liens are identified, the properties that are the subject of targeted action are inspected and a case is filed in circuit court. Importantly, all property owners and any other interested party receives notice of the action and has the opportunity to stop enforcement actions at any time before sale. The end product of a successful quiet title case is a public sale of the property on the existing county auction website.
Importantly, all costs associated with quiet title actions are paid by the third party purchasers who participate in the auctions. Filing fees, court costs, attorney’s fees...all costs associated with the action are incorporated into the Final Judgment and all those costs and expenses are paid for at auction.
To be clear: those municipalities that are effectively pursuing these lien enforcement strategies are capturing millions of dollars in lost taxpayer dollars, at no cost....and at no risk to taxpayers.
A municipality’s code enforcement liens are publicly recorded instruments and every municipality has the right, and arguably the obligation, to seek quiet title to those properties as a means of recapturing the taxpayer dollars associate with those enforcement activities. The legal process starts in circuit courts and the entire process is conducted using the existing state infrastructure. Importantly, the existing public auctions ensure a fair and level playing field exists between existing neighborhood stakeholders and any other party that might wish to bid and purchase the property for new build and development. A neighbor, long suffering from a blighted and abandoned home has just as much an opportunity to purchase that blighted lot at auction as any other party.
Whether the targets of code enforcement actions are disbursed across a municipality...or more effectively...when the targets of quiet title actions are focused within specifically identified blighted areas, the most important deliverable are lots and property that have clear title and which can be built upon immediately.
Targeted infill development is the most cost effective and efficient way to quickly deliver affordable housing to a community. Every community has areas where blight exists, and these areas typically have the highest concentration of vacant, blighted lots that should be the subject of municipal quiet title actions. Because the community controls those properties that are the subject of code enforcement activity, the community can target those areas where new housing and economic development activities will have the greatest impact.
As laid out here in detail, a clear distinction must be drawn between quieting title to properties which are inhabited and those that are vacant, blighted and abandoned. Neighbors, constituents and stakeholders of every description look to their local government officials to provide prompt and appropriate relief from the myriad of problems caused with property falls into truly blighted conditions.
Municipalities across the State of Florida that have engaged in a thoughtful and targeted quiet title program of the type described here have collected millions of dollars at no risk and no cost to taxpayers. But far more importantly, the consistent experience is that these efforts provide immediate and very positive results that are supported by the whole of the community. With that in mind, elected officials and department leaders should carefully examine and then promptly pursue those strategies as outlined here.
Think for a moment about your community’s most blighted and suffering areas. Those areas have the highest concentration of vacant and abandoned properties. But the blighted areas are likely close to vital downtown cores or areas that have potential for all manner of economic revitalization. Perhaps your community has existing redevelopment projects which have difficulty reaching their full revitalization potential due to nearby blighted properties or other private party projects that would show greater success were it not for pockets of blight nearby.
Explore how code a lien and quiet title program may work in your municipality. An initial conversation may uncover opportunities for using liens to infuse capital from public auctions to fuel community revitalization. Fill out the form below and a member of our team will contact you to set an appointment.
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Matt Weidner is a Saint Petersburg, Florida-based attorney where his practice is focused on real property law, civil litigation, estate and trust representation. Weidner has worked with code enforcement departments to establish successful lien and quiet title programs that have generated millions of dollars, placed countless blighted property into productive use and ultimately helped improve community morale. Matt Weidner was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1999 and has since been practicing civil litigation representing clients in consumer and commercial finance transactions and civil litigation.