Bay area properties rack up hundreds of dollars in daily code enforcement fines

Investor says huge fines prevent fast repairs

Eyesores have plagued Tampa Bay area neighborhoods for years.
 
Now we're uncovering the plan to clean them up is, in some cases, actually making it worse.
 
Since the housing crisis first began years ago, an increasing number of abandoned Tampa Bay homes have been racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in code violation fines.
 
But our I-Team has discovered some people are now questioning whether those large fines are preventing some of the problems from being solved.
 
For the worst of these violations, fines can reach more than $90,000 a year on a single home.
 
While they are intended to get owners to act fast to fix homes, some believe those fines could be scaring investors away.
 
“I've never even seen anyone come or go. It's just been sitting there,” said Mark Titley, describing a house two doors down from her own.
 
The house is sitting vacant as frogs and mosquitoes breed in an algae-filled swimming pool behind the home.
 
It is one of more than 120 homes on the City of Dunedin non-compliance list, and it’s racking up fines of $250 a day.
 
Homes like that one are the last thing people want in their neighborhoods.
 
“There's mold and mildew. There's varmints living in the roof,” said Terry Reavis, who lives next to an abandoned home in an upscale neighborhood in Oldsmar.
 
The house was in foreclosure, but the bank threw out the suit, so now it sits empty.
 
Hundreds of abandoned homes throughout the bay area are accumulating hundreds of dollars a day in code enforcement fines.
 
“You have a roofing issue that's leaking, you have a foundation issue on the this back right corner,” said Investor James Taylor, pointing out problems with another Dunedin home on the list.
 
Taylor buys, repairs and sells distressed properties in Florida and North Carolina.
 
He said huge code enforcement fines in some cities can make investing too risky.
 
“The fines are $254,000 and the house value is only $230,000. And you have to put $110,000 in work to fix the house,” he said.
 
This Oldsmar home next to Reavis has more than $700,000 in code enforcement fines.
 
“We're seeing hundreds, if not thousands of cases move through the system,” said attorney Thomas Trask, speaking of the large numbers of foreclosures in Pinellas County in recent years.
 
Trask advises code enforcement boards in 10 cities in Pinellas County.
 
“The thought process is that if you have a shorter compliance date and a larger daily fine, then the property owner will take a little more interest in getting the property into compliance quicker,” Trask said.
 
But in foreclosures, bankruptcy and abandonment cases, fines can grow for years.
 
The I-Team has learned that in unincorporated Pinellas County, there are 321 cases in which fines are over $100,000.
 
“They've collected zero on it. The neighbors have to deal with the aggravation and the process doesn't work,” said Taylor, describing the Dunedin property that has accumulated $254,000 in code enforcement fines.
 
In St. Petersburg, code enforcement fines are capped at $15,000.
 
The code enforcement director tells the I-Team that it works closely with investors who agree to repair distressed properties, charging them a $250 application fee then entering into an agreement that will reduce or waive certain fines after the repairs are completed.
 
Taylor said that allows investors to know what they are getting into on the front end of a project, rather than taking a financial risk that the fines will not be reduced after the repair are made.
 
Taylor said the Pinellas County Code Enforcement Board agreed to drastically reduce the fines on the Oldsmar home before Taylor invested.
 
“This is a death spiral otherwise. The liens are so far ahead of the value of the property that it would never be resolved,” said Reavis, happy that someone will soon repair the house next door.
 
But in Dunedin, that's not the case.
 
“It's always been my advice to the cities I represent to get compliance first, before you talk about reducing fines, and not the other way around,” said Trask.
 
He said this holds investors accountable.
 
“What they owe the city taxpayers who all live around here is to not live around this eyesore,” said Taylor, pointing to the Dunedin home.
 
Trask said the boards he works with will always agree to be responsive to the investors after they have bought the distressed properties up to code.
 
“I don't just think so. I know so. I know the commissions we represent have done that,” said Trask.
 
He said code enforcement doesn’t view the fines as a money-making venture for cities, but they do help defray some of the costs of enforcement action.
 
Trask said that each case on average costs about $1,200 to pay for things like inspections, notification and court proceedings.
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