TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida lawmakers sent to Gov. Rick Scott on Friday a bill meant to accelerate the residential mortgage foreclosure process in a state where the real estate market went into a tailspin during the national housing crisis.
Supporters of the measure (HB 87) said they hope it will provide a partial remedy to rejuvenate the vast housing sector.
"I don't think our real estate market will really start getting back to normal in Florida with new home building ... until we can reduce this backlog," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor.
The bill cleared the Senate on a 26-13 vote on the final day of the Legislature's 60-day session. It passed the House recently 87-26.
It wasn't immediately clear whether Scott supports the measure.
Latvala said the bill would make overdue improvements to the foreclosure process.
Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, was the most outspoken critic, saying the bill chips away at long-established property rights and fails to protect Floridians who lose their homes due to fraud.
Latvala said the bill has safeguards that tilt more in favor of consumers than banks.
The Sunshine State was one of the hardest hit by the national collapse in the real estate market that began in 2008. Those foreclosure cases quickly swamped an already overworked court system.
The legislation would make banks prove in more detail that they own a mortgage or explain why they can't prove ownership. It also creates a process for others besides mortgage-holders to ask the court to speed up foreclosure cases.
Another key provision would reduce the amount of time for banks to go after foreclosed homeowners on deficiency judgments - from five years to one year. Deficiencies are the difference between the money obtained from selling a foreclosed home and what the original homeowner still owes on it.
Soto said he was told by a judge recently that the cause for the mortgage case backlog isn't due to state law, but is a calculated move by banks to keep foreclosed properties from glutting the market, which would collapse housing prices.
"So what we're going to see here is, we're going to reduce property rights ... that have been on the books for generations and it's not even going to work," he said. "This isn't a legacy that I want to leave."
The debate comes amid signs that the nation's foreclosure crisis is abating amid an improving housing market.
The number of U.S. homes repossessed by lenders last month fell to the lowest level in more than five years. While some states still saw increases in homes taken back by banks, nationally home repossessions fell 3 percent in March from the previous month and were down 21 percent from a year earlier, foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac Inc. said recently.