Cities Struggling to Get Code Violators to Clean Up

01/16/2011

South Florida Sun-Sentinel.com

Cities struggling to get code violators to clean up
It beats taking them to court or living with the blight, officials say

By Susannah Bryan, Sun Sentinel
2:28 PM EST, January 16, 2011

With the foreclosure crisis in full swing, the number of trash-strewn, overgrown and unattended properties has exploded, dragging down property values in neighborhoods across South Florida.
As the problem grows, cities throughout the region are grappling with a daunting reality: They are practically powerless to force owners to clean up.
Sunrise has issued more than 500 liens totaling over $26 million for code violations, including at least two above $400,000. Boynton Beach has 750 liens approaching $50 million, with one homeowner racking up $1.5 million in fines in the past decade.
Still, in cities throughout South Florida, the violations continue and the fines keep growing.
"All we can do is keep racking up the fines," Sunrise City Attorney Stuart Michelson said. "The house is homesteaded, so you can't foreclose. So what can you do?"
Some municipalities have gone to court to force the more extreme cases to clean up their clutter or let the city do it. But the high cost of heading to court keeps most cities using the same old system of liens, a system critics say is broken because some people just let the fines – and the junk – keep piling up.
"I'm not an economist and I don't know why there are so many foreclosures right now, but I do know they create a problem that impacts everyone in the city because they see these houses and lawns and pools and they have to live near them," said Julie Fear, Miramar's code compliance supervisor. "The fact that the banks don't want to take care of their properties is the problem."
Boynton Beach has passed an ordinance requiring banks to maintain foreclosed properties so they don't become eyesores. Still, some homes in foreclosure limbo remain neglected. In other cities, banks are frequently being hit with code violations and requesting lower fines to help get the house sold.
It's not all foreclosures, though. And, in an effort to persuade violators to clean up and pay up in a tough economy, some cities have started offering lien amnesty programs.
Such programs offer huge discounts to residents and business owners with outstanding violations – as long as they bring their property into compliance and fix the problems. The discount varies from city to city. Some might let violators off the hook for anywhere from 10 percent to 25 percent of the total fine.
Sunrise, Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach, Plantation, Tamarac and Dania Beach have all joined the trend.
But one Boynton Beach official says he doesn't think the programs work.
"In the long haul, everyone gets a blue light special and some of the people don't deserve a deal at all," said Scott Blasie, code compliance administrator in Boynton.
Blasie said Boynton's lien reduction process is more effective because it forces property owners to comply and pay a $200 application fee, $50 per lien and any outstanding debts to the city — including taxes and water bills — before requesting leniency from the code board.
Lien amnesty programs may not be perfect, Sunrise Mayor Mike Ryan admitted. "But we don't have any other choice," he said. "Homes that are derelict cost the city money in staff time, in property taxes and in blight."
In Pompano Beach, Commissioner Charlotte Burrie represents areas of the city hardest hit by the crisis. "It has caused a lot of slum and blight between a lot of nice homes," "she said. "The foreclosure rate has made a very, very big impact on the neighborhood."
When Pompano Beach was considering its amnesty program last year, it reported close to 1,400 outstanding cases. Altogether, the violators owed $454 million. Pompano launched its program in February 2010. Under it, people who bring their property into compliance only have to pay a quarter of the fine – up to a maximum of $1,000.
With the program in place for almost 11 months, some 1,100 outstanding cases remain, with about $297 million in fines.
Pompano officials agreed to extend the program through Feb. 19.
In 2005, before the foreclosure crisis hit, Delray Beach had 10 percent of the code violations it has now, said Al Berg, the city's code enforcement director.
Delray Beach doesn't track how much in total fines are owed and has no amnesty program. Instead, the city works with violators to bring them into compliance without breaking the bank. Once they fix the problem, residents and businesses are frequently treated with leniency.
"We try and convince them we're on their side and want to help them," Berg said. "We try to get them to move [the junk] out for bulk trash pickups. We're willing to take it away. We need to maintain the neighborhoods so the people nextdoor don't have to look at those things."
In Boca Raton, violators often are expected to pony up the entire fine and code violations are rare, city officials said. Currently, Boca is owed only $280,000 in outstanding code violation liens.
Boca Raton's many gated communities with their strict homeowner associations may be one reason behind its lower fine rate, said Deputy City Manager George Brown. In addition, Boca Raton has not been hit as hard by the foreclosure crisis. In other cities, the fines may be "accumulating at astounding rates because there is no one taking care of the property," Brown said.
Under state law, cities are forbidden from foreclosing on homesteaded property to collect outstanding fines.
If the homeowner refuses to pay, a city often has to wait until the property is sold to collect the fine – or, in some cases, until the homeowner dies.
"That lien doesn't go away. It stays there," Berg said.
The majority of people try to fix the problem to stop the runaway fines – but there's always that 10 percent who thumb their nose at the system, Berg said.
"You have pack rats and people who collect cars and old motorcycles. They get a notice from the city and they say, 'So fine me.' They don't care about the liens. But most people are going to pay attention."
Sunrise is hoping code violators take advantage of its lien amnesty program. People who qualify and fix the problems will only have to pay 15 percent of the outstanding fine.
Sunrise resident Bill Daeder, who has racked up $429,000 in fines, says he has no hope of ever paying the lien, even if it were reduced to 15 percent.
"I may as well owe $1 million," said Daeder, who made headlines in mid-2009 after one commissioner labeled his home one of the ugliest in Sunrise.
Trees and bushes standing 10 feet high have taken over his front yard, helping to hide a hoarder's paradise. In the driveway sits a 1973 red Corvette, a grimy engine hoist, 13 cans of paint and carts piled high with junk.
The city filed a lawsuit in 2009 to force him to clean up his cluttered yard or let the city do it. A judge gave him seven days to tidy up. A team of city officials volunteered to help. The cleanup crew came and went, but Daeder let the clutter build up again.
Daeder says he has no intention of clearing his yard until the city waives his entire fine. And for now, he has no plans to move.
"My house is homesteaded and I will probably be there for a long time," he said.
The city's lawsuit against him is still pending. And his fines are going up at $300 a day.

For more information:

sun-sentinel.com/news/broward/sunrise/fl-city-lien-amnesty-20110114,0,7818479.story

Staff writers Ariel Barkhurst, Larry Barszewski, Maria Herrera, Rebekah Monson and Erika Pesantes contributed to this report.
Susannah Bryan can be reached at sebryan@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4554.

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