Southwest Florida Takes Fight to Blight

04/25/2011

Check out a great story below on a very successful AmeriCorps NCCC program initiative occurring right here in SW Florida.  Please let us know your thoughts and contact us for additional information.

Southwest Florida Takes Fight to Blight
10:22 PM, Apr. 24, 2011

AmeriCorps volunteers Sean Hopwood, and Jay McCue remove a chain-link fence from Virginia Concepcion's home in the Harlem Lake neighborhood off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The two, along with other AmeriCorps volunteers, are working with Fort Myers to clean up blighted properties.

Written byRACHEL REVEHL
rrevehl@news-press.com

Maria Morales, a code enforcement officer for Fort Myers, talks with Harlem Lake resident Virginia Concepcion after volunteers with AmeriCorps and employees for code enforcement tidied up her property.

To Report Blight:Unincorporated Lee County: 533-8895 or email: CodeEnforcement@leegov.com
Bonita Springs: 949-6257
Collier County: 252-2440
Cape Coral: 574-0613
Fort Myers: 321-7940 or email: mtitmuss@cityftmyers.com

In the battle against blight, some local code enforcement agencies are reporting spikes of neglected and abandoned properties requiring taxpayer-funded maintenance in the past year.
Among the challenges to battling neighborhood decay:
- Internal budget cuts and constraints;
- A flooded foreclosure market and complicated paperwork trails that make it difficult to locate the correct property owner;
- A depressed economy that makes it tough for violators to pay for repairs, fines and liens.
Given all that, officials say standard improvement and collection methods weren't working. To attack the problem, code enforcement agencies have been getting creative - organizing volunteer neighborhood cleanups, forming multi-agency task forces and bringing aboard property-registration programs to help sift through paperwork and quickly find the banks that own the properties so they can fix the problems.

"I wish I could say next year will be better, but I don't foresee that," said Mary Enstrom, Collections Manager with Fort Myers Code Enforcement.
"One reason is we have a lot of commercial properties that got bank loans five years ago that will be going into default, and a bulk of those will happen this year," Enstrom said. "The second thing is that people who might have received a loan five years ago are expected to make a balloon payment this year, and if they can't pay, we may be seeing even more foreclosures."

While most agencies don't track the number of abandoned properties they've worked to keep up, officials agree one of the best ways to measure blight is by the number of lawns mowed.
It costs $55 to $60 on average, including fees and interest, to mow a single lawn.
Last fiscal year in Fort Myers, code enforcement cut 2,021 lawns - up 33 percent from the year before when they mowed 1,519 lawns, and almost twice as many as the 1,040 lawns mowed two years ago.
In unincorporated Lee County, code enforcement cut 1,732 lawns last fiscal year - up 39 percent from the 1,249 the year before, but down 2 percent from the year before then.
Collier County code enforcement didn't have figures available for year-over-year lawns mowed, but since November 2008, has spent more than $350,000 to fix code violations.
Yet overall, foreclosures are down. According to the Southwest Florida Real Estate Investment Association, there were 365 foreclosures in Lee in March this year, compared with 1,198 last year. In Collier, according to RealtyTrac, there were 133 this March, compared with 626 in March 2010.
Slow foreclosures
So why are more properties being abandoned?
Joan LaGuardia, the county's community development director, said one possibility is foreclosures that were in the pipeline two or three years ago just hit the courts in 2010.
"People may have been living in their houses for months or even years because it took that long to get through the system," LaGuardia said. "But since they started this rocket docket, vacancies went up."
The "rocket docket" is a nickname for the lightning-speed docket courts are using to tackle the glut of foreclosures, sometimes processing hundreds daily.

To help code officers keep up, Fort Myers council passed a property registration program last year. The way it works is a contracted company, Federal Property Registration Corp., matches banks with properties they've foreclosed on. That's not always simple when other banks can service the same loans and sometimes banks don't immediately file for ownership of the property, meaning houses can sit unattended for months with no maintenance or accountability.
With the registration program, the bank pays a $150 fee for each property, with half going to the city and other half to the contractor. When there's a violation, the code officer calls the contractor, who finds the correct bank and notifies it of the problem. The bank is then responsible for paying any fines and dispatching a property manager to fix the issues.

Finding the ownerThe process helped Fort Myers officials track down ownership on an apartment at 3401 Winkler Ave. Ext. HSBC was in the process of foreclosing on a Naples investor. Mold had overtaken the condo with no air conditioner running. The bank has since gutted the unit.
Anthony Tino, who lives nearby, said the problem is not confined to bank-owned properties. Absentee investors holding on to properties often neglect maintenance in the condominium community.
"The ones around me fortunately don't have that problem," Tino said. "But they're all over around here."

Fort Myers officials say they're starting to gain ground.
"It's more organized now than it was," Enstrom said. "I'm glad the city had the foresight to approve the registration program, because if it wasn't for that, we would have no clue who's supposed to be taking care of those properties."
It's one of the methods Cape Coral code compliance division manager Frank Cassidy credits for his department's success. It's the only local code agency to see a decrease in lawns mowed - an 87 percent drop over the last year, despite having more foreclosures than anywhere else in the county.
Cassidy said the property registration program there started in 2009 and has collected more than $1 million in registration fees. It has allowed the city to avoid cleanup on more than 6,000 foreclosures. Cassidy also credits the Take Pride in the Cape neighborhood cleanup program, through which volunteers have cleaned 555 properties over the last few years. Their main focus is "gap properties," or foreclosures where no owner can be identified.
"We had over 30,000 foreclosures at the start of this, and we didn't have time to wait, so we started implementing some of these programs in 2007 and 2008," Cassidy said. "The city still has some rough-looking properties, but we've been able to control the major blight issues, which was always our goal."
It's too early to give an accurate estimate of what this year's figures will be; rainy season, the busiest for overgrown lawn complaints, begins in a month or so.

Staff writer Brian Liberatore contributed to this report.

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