Foreclosure program paying off in Largo's battle against blight

This home at 1791 S. Belcher Road was one of several targeted by the city of Largo’s Nuisance Abatement Program in 2019. The home, which was a target of suspected arson after becoming vacant, was demolished as part of the city’s efforts to crack down on derelict homes.

LARGO — Two years ago, the city’s code enforcement division had exhausted its options when addressing Largo’s 100 derelict homes.

To crack down on the blighted properties, the city stepped up its efforts and introduced a foreclosure program.

That program has paid off, Community Standards Manager Tracey Schofield told city commissioners Jan. 4.

“In today’s dynamic real estate market, when we bring neglected properties into compliance, it helps enhance the city through many different economic ways,” he said.

Some of those ways, he said, include increased tax revenue, property values, attracting property owners and new development. The program also helps violators by resolving code liens on property titles.

“Since the program’s inception, over $1.125 million in money owed to the citizens of Largo that may not have been otherwise recovered, have been collected,” he said.

The program combined with the booming real estate market means the city is likely down to roughly 30 vacant properties in the city with current code cases, Schofield told Tampa Bay Newspapers.

The program utilizes the services of the St. Petersburg-based Matthew Weidner law firm to target both commercial and residential properties in hopes of pressuring owners to clean them up.

On Jan. 4, commissioners voted 6-0 to pay Weidner $250,000 for his services in fiscal year 2022.

Schofield said the program has generated that much revenue in the first quarter of 2022 alone, so Weidner’s fee will not cost taxpayers anything. The rest of the revenue goes to the city’s general fund.

The process

“To date, there have been a total of 38 cases assigned to the foreclosure program due to the property owners’ lack of compliance to rectify outstanding issues,” Schofield said.

Cases go through a four-step review process prior to any case being filed with the courts, and it can be stopped at any level.

Of the 38 cases, 21 were settled by city staff or Weidner prior to any foreclosure, Schofield said.

“Eleven properties did sell at foreclosure auction and now have new owners,” he said, adding all the new owners have brought the properties into compliance.

He said six cases are still pending with the courts, and an additional 10 cases have gone through three of the four review steps and are being reviewed by Weidner.

Other benefits

“When this first came to us, I was a little hesitant … but hearing these numbers is a great thing,” Vice Mayor Michael Smith said. “I applaud the staff and Mr. Weidner for doing this. It seems to be robust and doing a great service to the community.”

Some of the services provided from revenue generated by the city’s nuisance abatement program included $80,000 to small businesses as part of COVID relief efforts in 2020.

In 2021, the funds also allowed the city to create the Angel Fund residential assistance program.

“In the past year and a half, the Community Standards division, through the Angel Fund program, has spent over $50,000 of the revenue collected from the nuisance abatement program on 34 violations, assisting moderate and low-income homeowners to correct code violations they otherwise could not afford,” Schofield said.

Schofield said he is proud of his staff’s efforts with the program.

“This type of program is very rare in the code enforcement division world,” he said. “It is run completely by the Community Standards team and has allowed us to correct minor code violations without the use of Code Enforcement Board, fines or liens that could affect the properties for years to come.”

In fact, due to demand, the Angel Fund program has already exhausted its entire $30,000 budget for the year in the first quarter of FY 2022.

But it wouldn’t be possible without the city’s foreclosure and nuisance abatement program.

“It’s doing everything we hoped it could do for the city,” he said.

The efforts also have helped cut down on outstanding fines citywide.

Two years ago, that number was $10 million. Today, it’s about $6.9 million, Schofield said.

“In the past two years through the nuisance abatement program, settlements, reduction hearings, and paid fines, we have been able to reduce around $5 million off the code case books,” he said.