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Florida Foreclosure Rate Highest in U.S.

foreclosure sign

Florida was a poster child for all the familiar excesses of the housing bubble -- the bad loans, the overheated market, the frenzied development. Although the party ended in 2007, the hangover continues. Recent numbers show the state has the highest foreclosure rate in the country.

Inside a Hillsborough County courtroom, Judge Judy Pittman Biebel is presiding over a non-jury foreclosure trial. The entire trial takes about three minutes.

Biebel is a retired judge from Panama City, who comes to Tampa to sit on the bench for a week at a time --  specifically to handle foreclosure cases.

The state funds these additional judges to help deal with the enormous backlog of foreclosures. One in every 32 Florida households received a notice of default, auction or repossession in 2012, more than double the national average .... and taking the top spot from Nevada for the first time in five years.

Florida's getting it from both ends. Foreclosures are still coming in at a high rate, and they're very slow going out. In fact, it’s taking nearly 2 and a half years to get through the judicial process.

And this speedy trial -- over in just minutes -- is in stark contrast to the foreclosure process -- which typically starts years earlier.
Real estate agents say the backlog of distressed homes makes it tough for the Florida housing market to heal. They depress prices and create uncertainty in neighborhoods.

Why does it take so long to get these foreclosed houses back on the market?

Analysts say the cumbersome legal process in Florida sets the state apart from other hard-hit states.

But judges say don’t blame them.  They say banks need to get a handle on finding promissory notes that have been shipped all over the country, and organizing their paperwork.

But still others blame  foreclosure defense lawyers. And that includes Sharmon Lenth, who was watching the proceedings from the courtroom gallery. She’s the president of a small credit union that has been trying to foreclose on a house for years.
"These people have lived in this house for over 2 1/2 years for absolutely nothing, Lenth says. She says she doesn't want the Judge to allow the homeowners any more time to leave.

“We worked with these folks. We worked with them starting back in 2008,"Lenth says.  "We combined things for them so we lowered their payments. Eight months later we worked  with them again! We helped them to get through some tough times. They made 14 payments on that, they defaulted on it, and hired one of these attorney groups.”

Judge Biebel ended up giving the borrowers more than 60 days to leave, and Lenth was disappointed. She said the members of her credit union needed to get that house back and sold.

"The whole process is just broke," Lenth says.

Lenth says unscrupulous foreclosure attorneys are using delaying tactics to tie up the process. But even with the complaints about the process, it doesn't appear  that it will change any time soon.

Nor should it, says Tampa real estate attorney Charlie Hounchell. He says the judicial review is an important protection for homeowners, a protection that they don't get in most other states. He says there's a lot more potential for abuse in a non judicial state.

" In Florida, the consumer has much more opportunity to remedy their default situation," Hounchell says. "You know, not everybody that goes into foreclosure is a bad person. They can be there because of  medical catastrophe or loss of job or whatever. What we do is look for a solution that's going to mean a positive outcome for the homeowner. Meaning, we negotiate with the bank on loan modification or negotiate a short sale. The most important thing is not to let house foreclose."

They're going to need those opportunities, because experts say the foreclosure crisis will not end anytime soon.

Robin Sussingham was Senior Editor at WUSF until September 2020.
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