Changes are scrapped to a controversial law restricting people from China from owning Florida land

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USA and China flags. Illustration by ffikretow via iStock for WMNF News.

By Jim Saunders ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate on Wednesday backed away from proposed changes that supporters said were needed to clarify a controversial 2023 law that restricted people from China from owning property in the state.

The proposed changes, which were opposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, could have affected which people and businesses are subject to the restrictions. For example, the bill sought to better draw distinctions between people or businesses with “controlling” interests in property and people or businesses with “de minimis,” or minor, interests.

Supporters of making changes have argued that confusion about how the restrictions apply has caused problems in completing real-estate deals.

“We are literally creating headwinds in the real estate industry because of last year’s bill,” Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Sunny Isles Beach, said Wednesday.

But during a Feb. 22 appearance in Central Florida, DeSantis opposed changes to the law, which faces a federal court challenge. DeSantis has argued for a tough stance against China, including targeting land ownership in Florida that could be linked to the Chinese government.

“What I see going on now is (an) attempt to unwind what we’ve done to protect Floridians against the threat posed by China,” DeSantis said at the time. “As far as I’ve seen, that is not something that’s going to pass muster with me. I think we have to open our eyes. China wants to buy farmland. They want to buy land near military bases. They want to buy land near critical infrastructure.”

A bill (SB 814) that included the proposed changes and an unrelated real-estate issue had moved through Senate committees. But the House on Monday passed a version (HB 799) that did not include the proposed China-related changes. The Senate on Wednesday went along with the House bill, passing it in a 34-5 vote and positioning it to go to DeSantis.

The 2023 law affects people from what Florida calls “foreign countries of concern” — China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria. But most of the debate about it has focused on specific restrictions on people from China who are not U.S. citizens or permanent U.S. residents.

Those restrictions prevent people “domiciled” in China from purchasing property in Florida, with some exceptions. Such people each would be allowed to purchase one residential property up to two acres if the property is not within five miles of a military base and they have non-tourist visas.

Associated Industries of Florida, a powerful business group, backed the proposed Senate changes.

“With this key (proposed) language, the national security focus of the foreign land buying law is preserved, while allowing minority, passive investment — some of which has been on the sidelines during the rulemaking process here and could easily move to other states, like Texas, without this added clarity,” Brewster Bevis, president and CEO of Associated Industries, said in a prepared statement last week. “We want our real estate market in Florida to be fair and predictable, and Senate Bill 814 will tighten last session’s legislation while keeping it the toughest on China in the country and continuing to grow our burgeoning economy.”

Four individual plaintiffs and a real-estate broker filed a lawsuit last year challenging the restrictions, including arguing that the law violates equal-protection rights and the federal Fair Housing Act. Three of the plaintiffs were in the United States on visas, while one was seeking asylum. The real estate broker, Multi-Choice Realty, serves a large number of Chinese clients.

U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor in August denied a request from the plaintiffs for a preliminary injunction. But a panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month ruled that the restrictions are likely trumped by federal law and blocked enforcement against two plaintiffs who had been in the midst of real estate transactions.

The panel issued a partial preliminary injunction that will remain in place until the underlying issues in the appeal are decided. Arguments are scheduled in April.

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