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.
Mr. Guerette, who now faces up to 15 years in prison, insists that his business is legitimate and moral. He said he got started last year, driving around working-class neighborhoods in Palm Beach and Broward Counties, looking for a particular kind of home: not just those with overgrown lawns and broken windows, but houses with a large orange sticker from the county reading “public nuisance.”
The stickers signaled owners out of touch: the county or city was unable to reach them.
Mr. Guerette filed court claims on around 100 of these properties, which appear to be in the process of foreclosure. Then he chose 20 that could be most easily renovated and sent letters to the owners and their banks — presumably overwhelmed — to make them aware of his plans.
Florida does not require notification. One state lawmaker tried and failed to close that loophole last year with a bill that never passed. But it hardly mattered. Nineteen of the owners and their banks did not respond, Mr. Guerette said.
So he set about fixing up the unclaimed properties. In some cases, he just mowed the lawn and replaced stolen air conditioners or broken windows; in other cases, like with Mr. Ferguson, he let tenants make improvements in lieu of rent. At his peak last year, he said he managed 17 homes with renters, some of whom he found on Craigslist, others through a Christian ministry in Margate, Fla.
Copies of leases show Mr. Guerette included an addendum noting that he was not the legal owner. Tenants like Mr. Ferguson and his family, who had been homeless before moving in last year and paying $289 a month, see Mr. Guerette as a savior.
And neighbors generally agree. “There is no telling who was in and out of that house,” said Rawle Thomas, who lives next door to Mr. Ferguson and his family. “I like them, and I’d much rather have someone in there than the house empty.” <!–156f81810d104f078398d79f126f28ff–>