The Investigators: Code Enforcement Nightmares
Law Can Protect Homeowners From Liens
MIAMI SHORES, Fla. -- The word "lien" strikes fear in the heart of every homeowner, especially if you are trying to sell or re-finance your property.
The Channel 10 Investigators uncovered a law that basically allows South Floridians to ignore some liens.
Jilda Unruh: It's a homeowners' nightmare -- when they find out the city has put an expensive lien on their property as a way of collecting fines for code violations.
We discovered there's a way to escape that nightmare, thanks to Florida's state constitution.
The birth of twins hasn't been the only surprise Delia Barroso has had to deal with lately. A hefty lien on her Miami Shores home, has also rocked her world.
Barroso: Then in August when we went to refinance, I found out that we had an $18,000 lien.
The Barrosos say code enforcement for the Village of Miami Shores fined them for building a gazebo in their back yard without a permit.
Henry Vidal has a similar problem. He says he can't sell his house because the Shores attached a lien on his property that is now up to $19,000 and climbing -- a lien he says he didn't even know about until recently.
Vidal: I said, 'What lien?' He said, 'For that garage.' I said, 'What? Are you out of your mind?'
Code enforcement has been fining him for the last three years for what they say is an illegal enclosure of the garage.
Vidal: It's extortion. It's them getting what they want at the owner's expense.
What Vidal, Barroso and probably most South Floridians don't know is that they are protected under the Florida constitution, from any town enforcing these municipal liens as long as the property is their homestead.
Iliana Forte is an attorney in Coral Gables.
Forte: These liens essentially do not exist against property owners who live in the property and are taking their homestead exemption -- essentially, under the constitution, this lien does not exist.
So why are thousands of South Floridians begging and borrowing to satisfy these municipal liens?
Barosso: Most people don't know that it's not enforceable.
But don't expect your municipal officials to tell you that. Barroso and Vidal say, these liens can be a cash cow for municipalities such as Miami Shores.
Vidal: We heard code enforcement people getting a great deal of joy out of how much they've extorted from residents in liens. I heard one of them say, we got $35,000 today. Give me five!
By simply getting a declaration of homestead, Forte says, homeowners can avoid paying these costly municipal liens, as long as they maintain a homestead.
Forte: They need to notify the city that they intend to do that, and that they're claiming the property as homestead. Then it becomes the city's burden to challenge their homestead. If they don't do that within 45 days, you can deliver that property to the person that is buying it from you free and clear of any liens against the property.
Unruh: I want to re-iterate this law only applies to the property considered your homestead. It does not apply to a second home or commercial property.
You should also know, that this only applies to municipal liens on your homestead. Other liens, such as tax liens, can and will be enforced.
Meanwhile, none of the Shore's officials we contacted for comment on this story would agree to an on-camera interview.
Jilda Unruh shows you what she uncovered about code enforcement in Miami Shores. Watch at 11 p.m. to see if the chairman of the village's code enforcement board plays by the same rules he imposes on everyone else.
Part II: The Investigators: Selective Code Enforcement
The Investigators: Selective Code Enforcement?
MIAMI SHORES, Fla. -- Watch Jilda Unruh's report Monday at 11 p.m. to see just what dirt she dug up in Miami Shores.
Do you get fined for having dead grass, but your neighbor doesn't? Do code enforcement cops in your neighborhood scrutinize the color and shade of your house paint?
The Channel 10 Investigators decided check up on code enforcement in one South Florida community and you're not going to believe what they discovered.
As investigative reporter Jilda Unruh found out, many residents are fed up with vague and ambiguous municipal codes.
Most communities have codes that residents are supposed to abide by. But some communities are stricter than others, when it comes to enforcing neighborhood codes.
In the Miami Shores, many residents believe village officials aren't just strict, they're unreasonable, vindictive and selective.
Henry Vidal grew up in Miami Shores. His parents bought this house with its pea rock driveway back in 1954.
Recently, Miami Shores cited Vidal for violating the village's code against loose materials being used for parking areas. So today, Vidal has to pay to pave his pea rock driveway.
The question is why?
Vidal says, "Ma'am, there's pea rock all over this town."
In fact, the Investigators easily found five homes in the Shores with huge pea rock driveways. When they contacted the homeowners, not one of them had ever been cited for violating the villages code against driveways made of loose materials.
"It appears to be selective enforcement," Vidal said.
In fact, according to minutes of numerous code enforcement meetings including the one the Investigators attended this month, Shores residents were being cited for code violations such as dead grass and plants, cracked sidewalks, unsightly house exteriors like damaged roof tiles, chipped paint, mold or dirt, and loose overhanging objects.
The Investigators videotaped one house with dead grass, dieing plants, cracked sidewalks, unsightly house exteriors such as damaged roof tiles, chipped paint, mold and dirt and loose overhanging objects. But it was not the homes of code violators. It is the home of Barry Asmus, longtime chairman of the Miami Shores code enforcement board.
Next door to Asmus' house, the neighbor's front lawn had dead grass, a cracked sidewalk, as well as broken front porch and step tiles. Asmus, who refused our requests for an interview, also refused to come to the door when we showed up at his house.
Unruh: Hi. I'm looking for Mr. Asmus.
Officer: He's in his office right now.
So Unruh asked the code enforcement officer leaving Asmus' house about the spot where he'd parked his car.
Unruh: Aren't all parking spaces supposed to be asphalt or cemented surfaces? I see you're parked on the grass.
Officer: People are supposed to have paved parking and Mr. Asmus does have paved parking in the back and people are allowed to park on the swales as long as they don't damage the grass.
Unruh: But from the look of the Asmus lawn the grass was already in bad shape. Out back we did find a paved driveway, but we also found lawn and garden equipment stacked against the fence. Unsightly compared to Barroso's copper and shingle gazebo. Yet the code enforcement officials cited Barroso for an illegal structure and forced her to destroy it.
Unruh: Do you look at this as an abuse of power?
Barroso: Oh yes! Absolutely. Seven angry men. They don't go by the rules. They do whatever they want.
Vidal: They said, 'We don't care. We don't care what the law states. We don't care what the law is. This is Miami Shores Village and we say what goes.'
Vidal is also battling Shores officials over his enclosed garage. Even though, according to building permits he discovered, the enclosure was done in 1952, two years before his parents bought the house, code enforcement has been fining him $25 dollars a day since the year 2000.
Vidal: I'll swear to you on my father's grave -- this room has been like that and I shouldn't have to pay for the sins of the father or the previous owner.
That may be, but code officials have told him he must rebuild the garage according to the home's original plans from 1939. Until he does, the fines don't stop and the $19,000-plus lien the Shores has put on his property can't be satisfied.
Vidal: I've lived here all my life. I love Miami Shores.
Unruh: But after all this, do you still love Miami Shores? Vidal: No, no. It's the reason I want to leave my home. It's no longer my home.
Vidal says he suspects the Shores wants to see long time residents sell their homes, so the village can beef up it's tax base since property values have increased so much.
Unruh: We wanted to ask Miami Shores officials about their code enforcement policies, but the village attorney, city manager and the chairman of the code enforcement board all refused to answer any questions on camera.
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