Gov. Rick Scott said Tuesday he was caught aback by the Sun Sentinel's investigation of how banks have established foreclosure practices that have left thousands of South Florida homes to decay, devastating neighborhoods.
"Maybe I don't ask enough questions about it, and I will now," he said in response to a series of articles the newspaper published this week regarding bad-neighbor banks.
The Sun Sentinel found that some banks evade responsibility for abandoned homes they hold title to, and banks and their agents act in ways that leave other vacant properties in legal limbo. The result is homes no one wants to live next to, much less buy.
They have algae-filled pools, knee-high grass, trash-strewn yards, broken windows, missing doors, peeling paint, mold, and uninvited tenants such as squatters, raccoons or rats.
Scott said his initial, gut-level reaction was that the problem was not so much the behavior of the banks but the poor condition of Florida's economy. "The real solution is more jobs," he said, repeating a common theme he has championed as the cure-all for most of Florida's ills.
The governor's remarks came in an hourlong discussion with the Sun Sentinel's editorial board that covered a wide range of issues, including gambling, texting while driving, and Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground law.
The governor revealed that he would certainly run for re-election in 2014, but he won't pump more than $73 million of his family's money into the campaign, as he did in 2010.
"My plan is not to do that again," he said, adding that he isn't excited about the prospect of raising campaign money from others. "Raising money is a pain in the rear."
Scott, who'd been a corporate leader but never held elected office before January 2011, said he's learned a great deal in his 16 months on the job, namely to prioritize. "I've figured out in this job you can't do 100 things a year. You just can't get anything done if you do," he said. "You've got to have five, seven, nine things to do."
When it comes to holding banks accountable for maintaining abandoned homes, Scott sounded reluctant to act. He said he feared that banks will not lend, or will raise the cost of lending, if faced with additional state regulations.
"We want them to lend, and we want the interest rates as low as possible," he said.
Other states, such as New Jersey and New York, have adopted laws requiring banks to keep up the maintenance of vacant homes in the midst of foreclosure suits, before getting title. Banks can be unwilling to tend to homes they don't own, for fear the owner has not truly abandoned the property.
Asked if a similar law could be passed in Florida, the governor said it could be done, but "somebody's going to pay for it." The banks, he said, likely will not take on more responsibility without foisting the cost onto consumers somewhere down the line.
Instead, Scott said, he favors expediting the foreclosure process so homes don't sit empty for so long. A bill to do just that failed in the Senate this year among strong opposition from consumer rights groups who thought it did not have enough protections for homeowners.
The governor also said he would like for Florida to take the entire foreclosure process out of the hands of the courts and, instead, permit lenders to foreclose without a judge's approval, as they do in California, Texas and some other states.
Over the past few years, South Florida officials from Miami to Lake Worth have struggled to deal with the avalanche of abandoned homes and their associated effects: more crime, increased fire hazards, depressed property values and dangerous open pools.
The Sun Sentinel found that many banks have chosen to walk away from certain foreclosure suits when the homes no longer have enough market value to offset the costs of completing the court process and maintaining, marketing and selling the properties.
This has contributed to a severe "legal limbo" problem involving thousands of unoccupied houses that have no owners willing to claim them.
Local governments struggle to find the money to condemn and raze such houses. Scott doubted that the state would come to their aid.
"My initial thought…is it's a local issue, not a state issue," he said.