TALLAHASSEE — As foreclosure legislation gains momentum, clearing a House hurdle Wednesday, opposition is growing louder from Southwest Florida residents and some lawmakers who say the bill lacks protections for struggling homeowners.
The bill — sponsored by Reps. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, and Greg Steube, R-Sarasota — aims to put houses back on the market faster by expediting Florida's foreclosure process, which is among the slowest in the nation.
By speeding the process, some say the bill eases the burden of proof for lenders and could create a scenario similar to the robo-signing used by banks to hurry foreclosures, precipitating the housing crisis.
Passidomo, a Naples Republican and real estate attorney, assured legislators and consumer advocates that the bill includes ample protections. She batted down accusations that her bill seeks to take the foreclosure process out of the courts.
"Firstly, and to put everyone's mind at rest, and contrary to the emails and the phone calls you have been receiving, this bill is not a nonjudicial foreclosure bill," Passidomo told the committee.
In fact, she said afterward, the bill ensures the process remains in the courts and offers more protections for consumers.
Groups of Florida homeowners facing foreclosure deny the bill protects them and insist the intent of the bill is to grease the process for banks, which regularly fail to document their cases. They said the original lenders are seldom the plaintiffs, and fraudulent documents are commonplace.
Maia Shaffer, a founding member of Mortgage Justice, an association of foreclosure defendants, said she watches the foreclosure proceedings of other members.
"The judges say to the banks frequently that, 'We're getting blamed for the foreclosures going so slowly, but you're not doing your job,'" said Shaffer, 52, who has been fighting to keep her Sarasota home for three years.
Mortgage Justice and several other organizations are scheduled to protest the bill in front of the Capitol on Feb. 15.
"They're trying to make it easier for banks to go in and tell lies and not have to defend those lies," said Malcolm Doney, 75, of Fort Myers, who has spent more than four years defending his half-dozen homes from foreclosure.
Nonetheless, even the strongest opponents of the bill acknowledge advantages. It would reduce the statute of limitations for lenders seeking judgments from five years to two, and it sets forth elements a plaintiff must include before filing a foreclosure action.
But other components drew fire from lawmakers Wednesday, even though a 12-4 majority passed the bill, at least one of them on the condition that it be fixed.
One provision would extend the ability to request an order to show cause to any lienholder. That means, for example, a contractor with a $50 lien for unpaid services could begin the process for a final judgment on the foreclosure.
Another provision, which Passidomo considers the bill's centerpiece, would create an expedited track for foreclosing abandoned homes. It offers five indications that no one lives in a home — including trash, broken windows and interviews with neighbors — and requires three attempts to reach a resident at different hours of the day at least 72 hours apart.
Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Ft. Lauderdale, called the language "nebulous" and said "some people are just sloppy to what level does this have to rise to that somebody's going to lose their home over it?"
Others asked how a private person working for a bank, not a sheriff's deputy, can be trusted to verify no one is home.
"I'm suggesting that something be required so that we don't enter a situation like the robo-signing that has taken place in the past that we just have allegations made without any type of an affidavit attached," said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek.
Late Wednesday night, Passidomo dashed into a meeting with stakeholders to restructure that part of the bill before its next stop in the House Judiciary Committee, which meets Feb. 16.
She said the next version of the bill would alter the proof burden from "a preponderance of evidence" to the stronger legal standard "clear and convincing." And she said she would seek to restrict the statute of limitations further, to one year.
Jenne said cosmetic changes would not convince him to vote for the legislation.
"If that bill comes out like it looks now, there's no way I can support it," he said. "In fact I'll have to stand up and speak out against it on the floor, and I'm selective about when I do that."