Preposterous rules in Florida do not allow renters to pay water bills of foreclosed landlords who have closed accounts. The result is many surprised tenants wake up one morning, find their water shut off, and have no way to get it turned back on.

Please consider Collateral damage: Tenants of foreclosed properties

Whenever Michel Joseph wants to shower, cook or use the bathroom, he has to leave his Little Haiti apartment and drop in on a neighbor who has running water.

Water has not run in Joseph’s derelict apartment since his landlord abandoned the four-unit building to foreclosure, and skipped town in November. The landlord’s absence led to a water shutoff, and for the past four months, Joseph has not been able to turn it back on because of a long-standing rule at the Miami-Dade Water & Sewer Department.

That rule — which restricts renters from re-opening a closed account — has come under increased scrutiny as more landlords have fallen prey to the foreclosure crisis, some leaving tenants without basic utilities.

“The tenants have become the hidden victims of the foreclosure crisis,” said Purvi Shah, a Florida Legal Services attorney who defends tenants of foreclosed properties. “There are hundreds of tenants in Miami-Dade County living in really serious conditions.”

Earlier this month, the Miami-Dade County Infrastructure and Land Use Committee voted to create a bridge account program that would allow tenants to open a temporary Water & Sewer account. The full county commission is set to vote on the bridge account next month.

For Shah’s team at Florida Legal Services, getting to this point has been a long, difficult battle.

Her team defends tenants going through foreclosure, and has litigated issues like water and electricity shutoffs, illegal evictions, tenant intimidation and landlord abandonment. Of the various issues that tenants face during foreclosure, water shutoff has been the most problematic, Shah said.

Water service was discontinued at Hilda Bustos’ North Miami-Dade rental last year before Legal Aid lawyers filed suit in order to force the landlord to pay the bill. However, after the property went into foreclosure, the bank repossessed it and shut off the water, sparking another lawsuit from Legal Aid. The water was eventually turned back on, but tenant advocates do not have the resources to litigate against every landlord that abandons a property, Shah said.

In the past three years, more than 400 multi-family properties have had water service discontinued because a landlord defaulted on payments, county statistics show.

Imagine wanting to pay money for a service and being unable to do so. Imagine being without water for four months.

In other cases, in other states, tenants have been given as little as an hour or less to pack their belongings and leave.

Some states have passed laws to deal with these situations but this is 4 years into the crisis. How long does it take bureaucrats to think and act?

The answer obviously is 4 years an counting.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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