June 20, 2010 in Business

Vacant homes targeted under archaic law

Sally Kestin Sun Sentinel
 

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Imagine going to a house or condo you own and finding a stranger living there who claims the property no longer belongs to you.

It’s happening across Florida and other parts of the country through what authorities say is abuse of a centuries-old concept known as adverse possession.

Dating back to Renaissance England, adverse possession allowed people to take over abandoned cottages and farmland, provided they were willing to live there and pay the taxes. These days, officials say, the legal doctrine is being misused by squatters, trespassers and swindlers to claim ownership of vacant or foreclosed homes.

In Florida’s Broward and Palm Beach counties alone, adverse possession claims have been filed on some 200 homes in recent months. Three of the four people behind the claims have been arrested, and police are investigating the fourth man, who along with his father, a convicted mobster, tried to take over properties in Hollywood, Fla.

“We look at this as another con job, another get-rich-quick scheme,” said Don TenBrook, a Broward state prosecutor of economic crimes. “You’re starting to see them pop up all over the place. It’s been spawned by the real estate crisis.”

A bill in the Florida Legislature this spring would have helped cut back on the abuses and better protect Florida property owners, but it failed to pass — the result of political retribution, state Rep. Ron Schultz, one of the sponsors, told the Sun Sentinel.

“We tried to nip this in the bud, but that didn’t quite work,” Schultz, a Republican, said. “This is becoming a fairly wide scam in Florida.”

Antonio Vurro owned an empty rental home in Sunrise, Fla., that he was trying to sell when he discovered in February that someone had moved in, changed the locks and was trying to open a utility account.

“There were boxes all over the place and a mattress in each room,” Vurro said in a recent interview. “This is not right. It’s my house.”

The occupant, Fitzroy Ellis, told Vurro he was entitled to take over the home because it was abandoned. Police disagreed, and Ellis, 64, is now in the Broward County Jail charged with six counts of grand theft.

Ellis tried to claim a total of 48 properties in Broward, including a $1 million house in Coral Springs, through a company he formed called Helping Hands Properties Inc., county official records show. He told a Plantation, Fla., police detective he planned to rent out the houses and condos and could offer tenants a good price “since he didn’t have to pay anything for the homes,” according to a police report.

Ellis, who is representing himself, wrote in court documents that the allegations against him are “false and an abuse of power.”

Another man, Mark Guerette of Wellington, Fla., filed notice in official county records that he was taking possession of 100 homes in Broward and three in the Palm Beach community of Lake Worth through Saving Florida Homes Inc. and two other companies. On one day last November, he filed takeover notices on 10 condos in the same North Lauderdale complex, records show.

Police say Guerette, 46, rented out six of the properties and collected more than $20,000 from tenants before he was arrested in April. He has pleaded not guilty to a charge of organized scheme to defraud.

His lawyer, Robert Shearin, said Guerette is nothing more than a good Samaritan, rescuing blighted homes.

“The banks are letting these properties go down the tubes,” Shearin said. “Here’s a guy trying to help out, and he ends up in jail.”

The attempted takeovers are more fallout from Florida’s declining housing market, said Dennis Koehler, a West Palm Beach lawyer.

“People who are upside down just choose to leave the property, let it sit,” he said. “Some people have decided, ‘Hey, this is an opportunity for me.’”

The opportunity involves a new twist on a very old law, dating to 16th-century England. Adverse possession allows non-owners of a property to eventually take ownership if they pay the taxes, occupy, maintain and improve the land for a period of years — seven in Florida. The purpose was to prevent abandoned properties from sitting idle with no one paying taxes on them.

It’s been used mostly to take over abandoned farmland or settle boundary disputes, such as a fence or building encroaching on a neighbor’s property.

In theory, vacant houses can also be taken through adverse possession, if the seven-year window passes and the property owner makes no attempt to pay the taxes or liens — an unlikely scenario, especially when a bank is laying claim through foreclosure, property experts say.

And claimants risk breaking other laws if they trespass, break into a home or try to collect rent without being the actual property owner.

Even if someone claiming adverse possession manages to occupy a home legally and pays taxes on it, “an owner could come in the sixth or seventh year and say, ‘I want my property back,’” Koehler said.


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