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Losing a Home Over Unknown Violations

A Bradenton homeowner fixed problems nine years ago after a city code violation, but a surprise lawsuit for $75K arrived last Aug. demanding money.

MIAMI – Last month, Marina Adair returned to Bradenton desperate to save her home.

The 1925 house, located in the Village of the Arts neighborhood Adair helped found, had once been the location for her art space, Marina’s Village Studios and Gallery, which spotlighted local artists. But Adair, 63, had planned to move in and spend the rest of her life there.

The artsy neighborhood is home to more than a dozen studios and shops that are also artists residences. In Bradenton, the community is known for its vibrantly painted homes and Art Walk events that attract thousands of visitors every month.

Adair’s retirement plan was put in jeopardy, however, after the city filed suit against her last August to foreclose on the house over unpaid code enforcement fines.

The fines stemmed from a 2014 code violation for “dirt, mold and mildew” and “chalking, chipped and peeling paint” on the exterior walls of her house, which Adair said was the result of algae from banyan trees in the front of her house and paint that was stripped when she removed a vine growing on the house.

Adair was aware of the initial violation, but believed it had been resolved back in 2014 when she had hired a handyman to clean the walls.

The lawsuit came as a shock.

The legal business of collecting old code-violation debts

It was filed by a private attorney named Matt Weidner, who signed a contract with the city in 2020 to file foreclosure lawsuits against properties with unpaid code fines. Under the terms of the agreement, Weidner gets a portion of whatever the city recovers by foreclosing on homes and selling them at auction or reaching settlements with owners like Adair to pay some or all of what they owe.

A Miami Herald investigation found that Weidner has signed similar agreements with a total of nine cities and counties across the state and that he has supercharged foreclosures for code violations in the cities that hire him.

That investigation, and its impact, might now help Adair keep her house.

In Bradenton, Weidner has filed 37 lawsuits on the city’s behalf in the past three years. The city doesn’t appear to have filed any similar cases in the decade preceding Weidner’s hiring.

Through Oct. 18, 2022, Weidner had been paid more than $230,000 by Bradenton in fees and expenses, according to public records obtained by the Herald. Across the state, Weidner has filed more than 780 foreclosure cases since 2015 and taken in roughly $3 million in fees and expenses for his work.

Weidner declined to comment on his work for the city, directing the Herald to contact Bradenton officials.

‘Sleepless nights’

In the lawsuit against Adair, the city said that a subsequent reinspection of her home later in 2014 found the property still to be non-compliant. But Adair said she was never told about the later inspection.

The fines for the violation increased by $100 a day and the city now said that Adair owed $75,000 in fines, the maximum amount allowed by city statute.

Adair, who works in the insurance industry, has agonized over how to keep her house. She hired a lawyer to fight the case and considered draining her retirement accounts to try to pay some of the fine.

“I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights I’ve had,” she said. “That was going to be my retirement home.”

Adair bought the home in 2000, the year after the Village of the Arts was first created. Adair served for several years on the board of the Artists Guild of Manatee, which supports the Village of the Arts, and would later serve as the president of the Arts Council of Manatee County.

Adair saw the neighborhood as a more down-to-earth alternative to Sarasota’s well-established, and more expensive, arts offerings and she was proud that they helped transform what had once been a crime-plagued area into the vibrant one it is today.

“We did a lot in that community,” she said. “We wanted to keep it local. We just wanted to have more people support the arts.”

Adair was living in San Antonio at the time her house racked up the initial code violations. She had moved there in 2013 to take care of her ailing parents and initially planned to return to Bradenton within a couple years. But her stay extended as her parents continued to need care and was further extended after her daughter suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2021. She rented out the Bradenton house early in her time in San Antonio, but after some negative experiences, decided to keep the house largely vacant, welcoming family and friends to stay there if they were in Bradenton.

Adair had been in direct contact with the city’s head of code enforcement, Volker Reiss, soon after she learned of the 2014 violation. Reiss had even sent a letter to Adair’s San Antonio address in regard to the issue. But rather than notifying her in San Antonio after the reinspection, the city sent the notice of non-compliance only to her Bradenton home.

She said she learned that the issue was considered unresolved when she was informed of the lawsuit on Aug. 26, 2022. This time, the city was able to find her San Antonio address.

In support of the city’s request for summary judgment, deciding the case in favor of Bradenton without a trial, Reiss, the head of code enforcement, confirmed that he had sent the notice of non-compliance to the Bradenton address – but not to her San Antonio address. Weidner, filing on behalf of Bradenton, maintained that the law didn’t require the city to notify Adair in Texas because “the order was sent to the statutory address.”

The circuit court judge presiding over the case, Edward Nicholas, sided with Bradenton, ruling to foreclose on Adair’s home in late February. The house is scheduled to be sold at auction on June 1.

Adair’s assessment of the case was blunt.

“It’s legalized thievery,” she said. “It’s not right.”

Bradenton reviews code policy

Adair hoped that she and the city could reach a settlement, but the city’s offer of $30,000 would have required her to draw from her retirement accounts to pay the balance. Adair said she tried to do anything she could to find another solution. She tried to contact City Administrator Rob Perry. She called Josh Cramer, the City Council member who represented the neighborhood the house is in.

“I called everybody that I could think of,” she said.

Her trip to Bradenton came one month after the judge had ruled against her. It also came a week after the Herald published an investigation into the sharp rise in foreclosures in Bradenton and other cities that had worked with the outside lawyer Weidner.

Perry said that the Herald’s reporting prompted a review of the city’s policy to clearly define when foreclosure is an appropriate measure.

“I did tell Code Enforcement to put together a manual that clearly outlines what the process will be to approve foreclosure on the properties,” he said. “It’s got to be more formalized with policy from our council.”

Perry also intervened in Adair’s case to help reach a settlement.

Adair and the city had been discussing  $30,000 when Perry reached out to her attorney to say the city would be willing to accept $10,000 instead, as long as she could ensure the property was in compliance with city codes.

While the deal isn’t final yet, she has taken steps to get the house in compliance, wired the money to her lawyer and hopes the city will honor the agreement and allow her to keep her house.

Perry defended Weidner’s work for the city, saying the attorney has “actually done a pretty good job” of bringing homeowners into compliance, citing complicated probate cases and a desire to eradicate slum and blight in Bradenton.

“There’s a host of things that make it difficult, but at the same time, I’ve got to clean up the neighborhoods,” Perry said.

But the experience with the foreclosure lawsuit has changed Adair’s view of the city and made her second guess her plan to ultimately retire to Bradenton.

“I’m concerned,” she said. “I’m almost there where I’m thinking I should sell the property if I can. It all just depends.”

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Source: https://www.floridarealtors.org/news-media/news-articles/2023/04/losing-home-over-unknown-violations

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