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At Legal Fringe, Empty Houses Go to the Needy

Catherine Skipp and Damien Cave|The New York Times
Tuesday, 9 Nov 2010 | 10:25 AM ET

Save Florida Homes Inc. and its owner, Mark Guerette, have found foreclosed homes for several needy families here in Broward County, and his tenants could not be more pleased. Fabian Ferguson, his wife and two children now live a two-bedroom home they have transformed from damaged and abandoned to full and cozy.

Foreclosure
Photo: Jeff Turner
Foreclosure

There is just one problem: Mr. Guerette is not the owner. Yet.

In a sign of the odd ingenuity that has grown from the real estate collapse, he is banking on an 1869 Florida statute that says the bundle of properties he has seized will be his if the owners do not claim them within seven years.

A version of the same law was used in the 1850s to claim possession of runaway slaves, though Mr. Guerette, 47, a clean-cut mortgage broker, sees his efforts as heroic. “There are all these properties out there that could be used for good,” he said.

The North Lauderdale authorities, though, see him as a crook. He is scheduled to go on trial in December on fraud charges in a case that, along with a handful of others in Florida and in other states, could determine whether maintaining a property and paying taxes on it is enough to lead to ownership.

Legal scholars say the concept is old — rooted in Renaissance England, when agricultural land would sometimes go fallow, left untended by long-lost heirs. But it is also common. All 50 states allow for so-called adverse possession, with the time to forge a kind of common-law marriage with property varying from a few years (in most states) to several decades (in New Jersey).

The statute generally requires that properties be maintained openly and continuously, which usually means paying property taxes and utility bills.

It is not clear how many people are testing the idea, but lawyers say that do-it-yourself possession cases have been popping up all over the country — and, they note, these self-proclaimed owners play an odd role in a real-estate mess that never seems to end. Though they may cringe at the analogy, as squatters with bank accounts, these adverse possessors are like leeches, and it can be difficult to tell at times whether they are cleaning a wound already there, or making it worse.

Either way, Florida is where they thrive.

Many residents of the Sunshine State have grown accustomed to living beside a home left vacant for years. Now hundreds of these mold-filled caverns, their appliances long ago spirited off, are being claimed by strangers.

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“There are all kinds of ways the people try to manipulate the system to their own financial gain,” said Jack McCabe, an independent real estate analyst with McCabe Research and Consulting. “And you are going to see it here because Florida is the capital of real estate fraud.”

Mr. Guerette, who now faces up to 15 years in prison, insists that his business is legitimate and moral. He said he got started last year, driving around working-class neighborhoods in Palm Beach and Broward Counties, looking for a particular kind of home: not just those with overgrown lawns and broken windows, but houses with a large orange sticker from the county reading “public nuisance.”

The stickers signaled owners out of touch: the county or city was unable to reach them.

Mr. Guerette filed court claims on around 100 of these properties, which appear to be in the process of foreclosure. Then he chose 20 that could be most easily renovated and sent letters to the owners and their banks — presumably overwhelmed — to make them aware of his plans.

Florida does not require notification. One state lawmaker tried and failed to close that loophole last year with a bill that never passed. But it hardly mattered. Nineteen of the owners and their banks did not respond, Mr. Guerette said.

So he set about fixing up the unclaimed properties. In some cases, he just mowed the lawn and replaced stolen air conditioners or broken windows; in other cases, like with Mr. Ferguson, he let tenants make improvements in lieu of rent.

At his peak last year, he said he managed 17 homes with renters, some of whom he found on Craigslist, others through a Christian ministry in Margate, Fla.

On a mission...from God?

Copies of leases show Mr. Guerette included an addendum noting that he was not the legal owner. Tenants like Mr. Ferguson and his family, who had been homeless before moving in last year and paying $289 a month, see Mr. Guerette as a savior.

And neighbors generally agree. “There is no telling who was in and out of that house,” said Rawle Thomas, who lives next door to Mr. Ferguson and his family. “I like them, and I’d much rather have someone in there than the house empty.”

In other cases, though, adverse possession has been more aggressive and problematic. In Palm Beach County, Carl Heflin spent a year in jail awaiting trial on fraud, trespassing and burglary charges. But after accepting a plea agreement and the rejection of his adverse possession claims, he was arrested again on charges of trying to collect back rents on houses he had tried to possess.

“The whole time he was harassing us and threatened to burn the house down with my kids in it,” said Misty Hall, a single mother of two who rented a home from Mr. Heflin.

Sam Goren, city attorney for North Lauderdale, said any benefits were outweighed by a simple fact that adverse possessors often overlook: they are trespassing.

Michael Allan Wolf, a real estate expert at the University of Florida law school, said adverse possessors also disrupt the chain of title. Rightful owners end up having to evict tenants. The time between foreclosure and legitimate resale may be extended.

Even when adverse possessors help stabilize neighborhoods, “It is not an effective or efficient cure for the foreclosure crisis in Florida,” Professor Wolf said.

Mr. Guerette says his goals are more charitable. After several marriages, six children and some minor trouble with the law, he said, he is now a born-again Christian who sees his new company as a way to make an honest living, and solve a dire need.

His tenants confirmed that after he was arrested in April, he told them they could stop paying rent. Even if he is not allowed to keep taking homes, he said, why should needy people not be matched with homes left to decay?

“There are over 4,000 homeless in Broward, and the number is growing all the time,” he said. “I thought I could use these homes and put people into them. It could be a good thing.”

He added: “It’s not rocket science.”

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