South Florida cities act to prevent blight in foreclosed homes

Once the lights and water were cut off at Cedars Pointe, a failed condo conversion in Miami's working-class Allapattah neighborhood, city officials had no choice: The building was deemed unsafe, and everyone in the 51 units was ordered out.

No sooner had the city locked the front gate, though, than the scavengers and squatters moved in, stripping out window frames, fixtures and wiring, and carting off stoves and refrigerators in the dead of night, neighbors say.

Until recently, city officials would have been largely powerless to put a quick stop to the looting. But Miami code enforcement officials, armed with a new ordinance that gives them unprecedented power to enter and secure unattended vacant structures, cleared mountains of trash from the grounds and sealed off the building before irreversible damage was done.

With the number of foreclosures and defaults sharply on the rise across South Florida, Miami and other municipalities in the region have been forced into aggressive action, adopting new measures that give officials greater resources to stem the spreading blight of vacant and abandoned homes and commercial properties.

Most municipalities have increased vigilance -- in some places, including Coral Springs and Miami, requiring owners of vacant or foreclosed properties to register and permit police and inspectors to gain access whenever necessary. The Miami-Dade County Commission is considering a registry, and a measure to create a statewide list has been introduced in the Florida Legislature.

Some municipalities, such as Miami, Miami Lakes and Palmetto Bay, have gone a significant step further: enacting legislation making it easier for code enforcement officers to spend what it takes to secure a blighted structure, then slap a lien on the owner for the cost without waiting for approval from a board or hearing officer -- a process that used to take months. The new rules allow authorities to begin to secure a property in a matter of days.

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