At legal fringe in Florida, empty houses go to the needy
NORTH LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Save Florida Homes Inc. and its owner, Mark Guerette, have found foreclosed homes for several needy families here in Broward County, and his tenants could not be more pleased. Fabian Ferguson, his wife and two children now live a two-bedroom home they have transformed from damaged and abandoned to full and cozy.
There is just one problem: Guerette is not the owner. Yet.
In a sign of the odd ingenuity that has grown from the real estate collapse, he is banking on an 1869 Florida statute that says the bundle of properties he has seized will be his if the owners do not claim them within seven years.
A version of the same law was used in the 1850s to claim possession of runaway slaves, although Guerette, 47, a clean-cut mortgage broker, sees his efforts as heroic.
“There are all these properties out there that could be used for good,” he said.
North Lauderdale authorities, though, see him as a crook. He is scheduled to go on trial in December on fraud charges in a case that, along with a handful of others in Florida and in other states, could determine whether maintaining a property and paying taxes on it is enough to lead to ownership.
Legal scholars say the concept is old — rooted in Renaissance England, when agricultural land would sometimes go fallow, left untended by long-lost heirs. But it is also common. All states allow for so-called adverse possession, with the time to forge a kind of common-law marriage with property varying from a few years to several decades.
The statute generally requires that properties be maintained openly and continuously.