Tampa activists ask State Rep. why he voted for foreclosure bill

03/01/12 Janelle Irwin
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A bill in the state legislature that would speed up the foreclosure process cleared the House floor yesterday and a group of about 20 Tampa Bay area residents aren’t happy about it. They protested the vote at Representative Shawn Harrison’s office in Temple Terrace. Harrison was one of 94 votes in favor of the bill.

Supporters say it will help banks clear up the backlog of pending cases on their books while also ensuring some safeguards for homeowners. It would give banks a way to provide documentation of ownership in situations where a mortgage note can’t be found. Sylvia Landis is a member of a group called Foreclosure Hamlet that connects struggling homeowners to groups that can help. She said all the bill does is cover up a path of fraud.

“What it does is it tries to convert bad title to good title by papering over and not challenging the title. We have existing laws that allow challenges. What has happened in actuality is that most of the foreclosures are fraudulent. They’re false.”

According to an organization called Realty Trac, the average foreclosure takes a little more than two years to complete in Florida. But according to that same group it could go much quicker. This bill shortens the amount of time a lender must wait to file a summary judgment against a homeowner to 20 days. But Landis said it’s helping banks cover for a mess they got themselves into.

“Right now if the bank has the legal right to foreclose, they can complete a foreclosure in 64 days. The reason that the foreclosures have slowed down is that the Florida law requires verification of the complaint. Many of the foreclosure mills have been put out of business and if an attorney puts forward a complaint – the case – and it is not legally valid than the bar has made it clear that they will hold them responsible.”

And Awake Tampa’s project manager, John Streater agreed.

“Maybe this is over-simplification, but it’s going to speed up the process and lean that process more heavily in favor of banks than homeowners.”

Streater opposes any legislation that burdens already struggling citizens. In this case he said lawmakers are solving the right problems for the wrong people.

“I think there is a lot of agreement in society as a whole that there needs to be something done to resolve some of the issues. But it seems like a lot of the things that are done, especially in our state – if there’s problems, the common folks are the ones that are going to pay to set it right. Not a broad bankers and homeowners resolve it together – some gains, some losses on each side – that appears not to be the case.”

The only part of the bill opponents are viewing as maybe a small victory is a provision that reduces the statute of limitations on collecting money still owed on a property after a foreclosure is completed. It’s called a deficiency judgment and now it can only be issued within one year of the foreclosure. That could help homeowners who are facing owing money on a home they no longer possess. But Sylvia Landis from Foreclosure Hamlet said the bill will leave banks with even more properties and that could affect homeowners who aren’t facing losing their homes.

“The banks own enormous amounts of properties which they want to unload and get off the books. So, it’s going to force the property values down and I think it will create total chaos in the real estate market.”

And for Walt Seely it’s not just a state issue. He’s with the organization Move On and he said the bill represents a far greater problem, one that climbs all the way to a national level.

“Just in general like so many other people, I am just very concerned that in this entire country we are seeing more and more representative government that isn’t representing the people. It’s representing the money powers. And that’s kind of why I’m here because I think it needs to change. We need to be dealing with the needs of the people.”

The group entered the office of Representative Harrison, a Republican, to find out whether or not he reached out to people who would be impacted by it. Harrison wasn’t there to answer, but Seely thinks it is likely that Representatives like him heard far more from banks than people.

“We have lobbyists with money in power. And they speak and they get heard by representative government; not only at the state, but at the federal level. The ordinary citizen doesn’t have that kind of power, that lobby, but we do have the vote. My big thing is, how do we convert the energy we’re seeing in Florida and in the whole country right now into votes? How do we make changes in this country so that we have representative government?

WMNF requested an interview with Harrison, but he didn’t respond by deadline. A similar bill in the state Senate still needs to be voted on before being signed off by Governor Rick Scott.

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