MIAMI (CBS4) – Carlos Mejeas can’t forget the shock of finding a woman named Michele Bell and a half dozen other strangers living in his six bedroom Miami house, which was on the market for rent.
“I almost had a heart attack. I came to the house she was here. Fifteen people were here,” Mejeas told CBS4 Chief Investigator Michele GIllen.
But finding her living there was just the beginning of his nightmare.
Bell didn’t want to just live in Mejeas’ house, she wanted to own it. According to documents filed with the Miami Dade Property Appraisers office, she had filled out a one page form and applied to adverse possess the house.
Adverse possession is a means of gaining legal rights to land or property. It’s based on a centuries old law written to protect truly abandoned property. But according to officials at the property appraisers offices in Miami Dade and Broward County, it’s turned into a modern day loophole for strangers determined to take over other people’s property.
“Is this a nightmare?” Gillen asked.
“It’s turning into it,” said Miami-Dade Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera. “This is a new frontier in fraudulent activity”
In Miami-Dade County, adverse possession applications rose from 30 in 2011 to 70 in 2012. In just the first 3 months of this year 52 applications were handed in. In Broward County, the number increased 76 percent, from 9 to 39 in 2012.
Efforts to adverse possess are playing out in all kinds of neighborhoods. Million dollar mansions are not immune. In fact, in some areas of the country they are a popular target, although records show that very often distressed and foreclosed properties are a number one choice.
For someone to legally adverse possess a property, it needs to be abandoned and the applicant needs to pay property taxes for 7 years.
A CBS4 investigation finds that is rarely the case, and in fact many of the homes people are moving into and filed adverse possession for are owned by another party who is current with paying taxes on the property. In fact, just recently and for the first time, the Miami Dade Property Appraisers Office did a cross check with the Tax Collectors office and found that nearly half of all recent adverse possession applications were invalid and were immediately voided because the taxes were current.
CBS4 investigators visited dozens of houses across Miami-Dade and Broward whose addresses we found on documents filed with the property appraiser’s offices.
One such house happens to be located directly across the street from the home of Carlos Mejeas. Mejeas said he finally got his house back after spending thousands of dollars in legal fees to go to court to try and get Michele Bell and her acquaintances out of his house.
The property across from him was occupied by a woman named Hermania Johnson, who filed adverse possession after she says she thought she and her partner could improve the property. Johnson claims the home was run down and had other strangers living in it and who were causing trouble.
When Gillen asked her if she had paid property taxes on the property, she responded, “not yet.”
When asked did she know who owned the house she said, “Only God knows.”
But according to county records and our investigation, the property is in the process of foreclosure but the attached mortgage company is current and paying the taxes.
Therefore, from the get go, according to Lopez-Cantera, it’s not eligible for adverse possession.
His office says it has now canceled 72 adverse possession applications and was sending the list to Miami Dade police department and to the proper owners.
Since then, the CBS4 investigators visited the house, and it appears Hermania Johnson has moved out.
It’s expected Florida’s Governor will be signing a bill this week aimed at closing loopholes in Florida’s Adverse Possession law.