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Written by Jen Karetnick -- BT Contributer   
April 2013

Illegal squatters are moving into the Shores, and we’re all paying the price

Ebigstock-Foreclosure-For-Sale-Real-Esta-11944106ver wonder how outsiders view Miami in general, and places like Miami Shores, in particular? If so, feel free to read the recently posted travel article in the New York Times, titled “Miami, My Way.”

Written by a woman who claims to be an expert on “classic, uncool” Miami simply because she’s visited nine times over the past two decades, the wrongheaded piece is angering residents across the board.

For one thing, the writer got some facts wrong. She calls the region “southern Florida,” rather than the widely accepted South Florida. She misspells a restaurant’s name. She cites a Kmart on Lincoln Road in 1991, instead of the Woolworth’s that it actually was, and has no idea the city limits don’t include Homestead and the Keys, which are part of “her” Miami.

For another, the tone of the piece is Manhattan-centric condescension, as though Miami is just another borough of New York City. She agrees with a friend (whom she calls “a veteran of Art Basel”) that “most of the allegedly cool stuff in Miami is actually stuff for New Yorkers who go there -- it doesn’t have to do with Miami.”

She claims that trying out a “list of Manhattan-chef-recommended new restaurants” is useless because “in my opinion, if you’re going to Miami for food that is more exotic than crab claws and Key lime pie, you are probably overthinking it.” Ouch.

But what really infuriates me, and a whole bunch of other locals, is this: She describes Coral Gables, a neighborhood of multimillion-dollar homes, as “lushly decayed.”

I’m sure the residents of Coral Gables are insulted to hear that their stringently monitored city is actually “decayed.” But hey, she didn’t describe Miami Shores that way. Why should we be concerned?

Like Miami Shores -- the Village Beautiful to the Gables’ City Beautiful -- homeowners in the Gables pay some of the highest property taxes in Miami-Dade County. Published, misguided statements not only harm the Gables, they hurt equivalent communities that banks, mortgage brokers, and real estate agents compare to the Gables. Just try to sell your house or renegotiate your mortgage with “lushly decayed” hanging over your roof.

What else harms our homes’ values, especially in Miami Shores? Foreclosures. Houses abandoned by their owners and left to the banks, who don’t monitor them until something goes wrong. And in both the Gables and the Shores, as well as all over the Upper Eastside and in similar neighborhoods in Broward and Palm Beach counties, what goes wrong is that squatters move in.

Between 2012 and 2013, the phenomenon of people moving into a house they don’t own or have a valid lease to rent has become more prevalent. Several factors contribute: the poor economy, causing families to squat out of necessity; unscrupulous criminals posing as landlords; and drug rings looking to establish dens that fly under the radar.

I’d like to muster up some sympathy for well-intentioned squatters like my husband and I when we bought Mango House. We had no choice but to move in early, after the seller declared bankruptcy. But it seems ill-intentioned squatters are the more dominant kind.

Indeed, this past July, NBC 6 reporter Willard Shepard helped to bust squatters living illegally on NW 100th Street; he was told by Miami Shores Police Chief Kevin Lystad that similar situations are occurring “at four homes in the same neighborhood.”

Shepard’s next piece? It could very well be on the alleged squatters who last month moved into a foreclosed home, left vacant for the past year, on NE 92nd Street.

The loudly barking Afghan hound that used to patrol the property was effective at keeping away strangers, but the family moved out of state and, of course, took the dog with them. The lack of defenses, plus the public availability of foreclosure records, made the home vulnerable.

Fortunately, observant neighbors noted the flurry of activity, and one proactive homeowner wrote about it in a letter he distributed to everyone in the area. “Two individuals were observed breaking into and entering the property,” he wrote. “Neighbors…have since observed these same two individuals having the locks changed on the property, moving furnishings, and establishing utility service on the premises...and what appear to be drug-related transactions occurring on the property.”

I’m impressed with the vigilance of my neighbors, who called police and the broker on the property, who has power of attorney. While the police can’t do much except try to catch the men committing criminal acts, the broker can start eviction proceedings.

The reason why police are somewhat helpless in these matters has to do with an archaic “adverse possession” law, which was put on the books centuries ago to help farmers, working land they didn’t own, claim it after seven years. It’s kind of like a common-law marriage, except between squatter and house. Many are taking advantage of this law, though a bill has recently been filed to overturn it.

Only the owner of the house, the one holding the deed -- or the bank -- has the power to prove trespassing, thus enabling the police to make an arrest. But neighbors can be surprisingly effective. The first step is alerting the homeowners and the police, at least so they can monitor the property. Also notify your Neighborhood Watch group, if you have one.

The second step is bringing the situation to widespread attention. While it may seem counterintuitive to let the general public know about houses in foreclosure -- and thus expose the properties to potential problems, and your own home to falling values -- it’s important to focus the lens on those houses that are already illegally occupied in order to stem the tide of squatters.

The third step? Make city officials aware. Squatters tend not to care about the house itself -- maintaining its appearance or keeping it up to code -- so in that regard it’s effective for officials to file violations. While it might hurt the actual homeowner in the long run -- liens can affect the sale of a house -- if the house is in foreclosure already, the bank will pay the fines.

For examples, see the March minutes of the Miami Shores Code Board meeting; it’s very instructive not only in terms of the damage the squatters can do to a home, but how many Miami Shores properties are currently in code violation. If you’re trying to negotiate a mortgage, this is important information.

Paying attention is, quite simply, the best way to keep Miami Shores from being overrun by squatters, or classified by ignorant outsiders as “lushly decayed.”

 

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