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: Mr. 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, though Mr. 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.
The 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 50 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 (in most states) to several decades (in New Jersey).
The statute generally requires that properties be maintained openly and continuously, which usually means paying property taxes and utility bills.
It is not clear how many people are testing the idea, but lawyers say that do-it-yourself possession cases have been popping up all over the country — and, they note, these self-proclaimed owners play an odd role in a real-estate mess that never seems to end. Though they may cringe at the analogy, as squatters with bank accounts, these adverse possessors are like leeches, and it can be difficult to tell at times whether they are cleaning a wound already there, or making it worse.
[…] Sam Goren, city attorney for North Lauderdale, said any benefits were outweighed by a simple fact that adverse possessors often overlook: they are trespassing.
Michael Allan Wolf, a real estate expert at the University of Florida law school, said adverse possessors also disrupt the chain of title. Rightful owners end up having to evict tenants. The time between foreclosure and legitimate resale may be extended.
Even when adverse possessors help stabilize neighborhoods, “It is not an effective or efficient cure for the foreclosure crisis in Florida,” Professor Wolf said.
Mr. Guerette says his goals are more charitable. After several marriages, six children and some minor trouble with the law, he said, he is now a born-again Christian who sees his new company as a way to make an honest living, and solve a dire need.
His tenants confirmed that after he was arrested in April, he told them they could stop paying rent. Even if he is not allowed to keep taking homes, he said, why should needy people not be matched with homes left to decay?
“There are over 4,000 homeless in Broward, and the number is growing all the time,” he said. “I thought I could use these homes and put people into them. It could be a good thing.”
He added: “It’s not rocket science.”
It’s amazing, how fast the legal system springs into action when poor people threaten the chain of title, yet is so slow to act when it’s a banker. Just sayin’!