TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- May 3, 2013 / 7:16 PM -- With an additional $1.1 billion to spend this year, there was less drama this session. Well, there was the incident this week when House Democrats protested the stalemate over healthcare reform by requiring all bills be read in full. The task was handed off to "Mary," a mechanical auto-reader that "read" bill texts aloud for two days.
The stall tactic didn't ultimately slow proceedings. In fact, the House moved through 75 percent of the day's agenda on Wednesday. Nor did it impact Florida Realtors' priorities. By Wednesday, most of our initiatives had either passed or were well on their way toward passage.
"As I travel the state, it's exciting to see the degree to which Florida's Realtors are involved in grassroots advocacy," says 2013 Florida Realtors President Dean Asher, a broker-owner with Don Asher & Associates Inc. in Orlando. "After meeting with lawmakers throughout the session, I'm happy to report that the Realtor Party has produced results you'll be happy with."
Following are highlights of the 2013 legislative session, which adjourned moments ago:
BILLS THAT PASSED
Much-needed funding for affordable housing programs. Lawmakers allocated more than $200 million from the large national mortgage settlement last year to numerous housing programs. Sen. Andy Gardiner (R-Orlando) negotiated the Senate's settlement spending plan, SB 1852 , which provides $50 million for rental assistance (State Apartment Incentive Loans or SAIL) and $40 million to refurbish existing homes for low-income families and provide down payment assistance and lease-purchase assistance (the State Housing Initiative Program, or SHIP). It also directs $20 million to Habitat for Humanity, $16 million for additional retired judges to help relieve the foreclosure caseload and $10 million in legal aid services for low- and middle-income homeowners facing foreclosure. While Florida Realtors prefers that funding for affordable housing programs come from the doc stamp taxes collected on every real estate transaction for the Sadowski Trust fund, we appreciate the Legislature's commitment to provide affordable housing for Florida's low-income families and the elderly. Effective when mortgage settlement money is deposited in Florida's general revenue fund.
Tax loophole closed. This goes into the win column for Florida Realtors. Working with several legislators, language was included in different bills to close a tax loophole used by for-profit affordable housing builders to exploit the law. They accomplish this by forming non-profit subsidiaries primarily to pay lower property taxes. Thanks to Reps. Daniel Davis (R-Jacksonville) and Doc Renuart (R-Ponte Vedra) for accomplishing this via HB 437, and Sen. Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) for placing this language in several Senate bills. Effective: July 1, 2013.
Lawmakers to squatters: Jig's up. Homes left unoccupied due to foreclosure have brought out all kinds of opportunists, including those seeking free rent in swanky digs under the veil of adverse possession. HB 903 by Rep. Daniel Davis (R-Jacksonville) amends Florida's long-standing adverse possession law to curb these abuses. Effective July 1, 2013, persons claiming adverse possession must:
- pay all outstanding taxes and liens levied by the state, county or municipality within one year of claiming adverse possession;
- provide the county property appraiser with their contact information, the date when the adverse possession claim began, a legal description of the property, and the dates when outstanding taxes and liens were paid. Filing this return with the property appraiser does not give an adverse possessor an enforceable interest in the property.
Squatters who don't file a return may be charged with trespassing. If an adverse possessor leases the property to a third party, they can be charged with theft.
Citizens will shrink, but not because of higher rates. A legislative session wouldn't be complete without an insurance reform bill. The bill that crossed the finish line, SB 1770 , started off big and controversial, calling for substantial rate increases for many of Citizens' nearly 1.3 million policyholders and all new policyholders. The end product is still big -- 75 pages -- and includes a Florida Realtors priority: create a clearinghouse to enforce Citizens' eligibility requirements. But it does not include a requirement sought by Sen. David Simmons (R-Altamonte Springs) that all new policies be actuarially sound. Simmons chaired the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee this session and negotiated a compromise between an ambitious Citizens reform bill passed by the Senate and a "lighter" version proposed by the House.
"There were so many insurance bills this session that seemed to go in so many different directions, including huge rate increases. But early on we identified the one reform -- an eligibility clearinghouse -- that would do the most good for the most people without unleashing rate increases that could hurt Florida's economic recovery," says John Sebree, Senior Vice President of Public Policy. "The legislation that did pass was the result of many long hours of negotiations between legislators, insurance companies and agents, consumer groups and Realtors."
Here's what the bill accomplishes:
- All applicants for Citizens coverage will have to go through a clearinghouse to establish eligibility. If applicants can obtain private market coverage at a cost that's within 15 percent of the Citizens' premium, they are ineligible for Citizens. Incidentally, this is current law but easily circumvented.
- Currently, homes with a replacement cost of up to $1 million are eligible for Citizens coverage. Beginning in 2015, the maximum replacement cost will drop $100,000 a year for three years. In 2017, then, homes with a replacement cost greater than $700,000 will not be eligible for Citizens coverage. This won't apply to homes in areas where the Office of Insurance Regulation determines there's no "reasonable degree of competition," such as the Florida Keys.
- Removes Citizens eligibility for homes built or substantially improved seaward of the Coastal Construction Control Line after July 1, 2014.
- Expands the Citizens Board of Governors to include a consumer advocate, who will be appointed by the governor.
Effective: July 1, 2013, unless otherwise provided.
Foreclosure reform. With buyer demand increasing and inventory levels at record lows, Realtors consider foreclosures lingering in the courts as prime housing stock. To be sure, foreclosing on a mortgage is a long process in Florida -- about 853 days, more than twice the national average. That should begin to change with the passage of HB 87 by Rep. Kathleen Passidomo (R-Naples). The bill allows lenders to ask the court to justify why a final order hasn't been entered, and gives condominium and homeowners associations the right to request the court move the process along where appropriate. Consumer interests are addressed in several provisions including: (1) requiring lenders to prove they own the loan for a property before foreclosing on it; (2) reducing the time lenders can seek deficiency judgments from five years to one year and (3) providing protections for innocent parties who purchase a property without knowledge that a previous owner may have a claim to the property. For the person whose home is erroneously foreclosed on, HB 87 provides for the recovery of damages (monetary, compensatory, punitive, statutory and consequential), injunctive relief and fees. Effective upon becoming law.
Rent out homestead every year, keep tax exemption. This initiative originated in Northeast Florida, where property owners sought to rent out their homestead during The Players Championship golf tournament and the Daytona 500 without jeopardizing their homestead status for several tax exemptions. Under current law, rental for any amount of time in the second of two consecutive years triggers abandonment of homestead and loss of the homestead exemption in the second year. SB 342 by Sen. John Thrasher (R-St. Augustine) provides a "safe harbor" that lets people rent their homestead for up to 30 days a year without losing the exemption. However, rentals that exceed 30 days for two consecutive years jeopardize the homestead exemption in year two. Note that the law doesn't address how many days beyond the 30-day threshold triggers abandonment of homestead. A Department of Revenue opinion allows for rentals of up to six months every other year if proof of substantial residency and other conditions are met. Effective: July 1, 2013.
New option: Electronic version of yearly property tax notices. Many businesses have cut down on the cost of paper and mailing by giving customers the option to check bills online. HB 247 by Sen. Jeremy Ring (D-Margate) and Rep. Bryan Nelson (R-Apopka) attempt to do the same thing for Florida, and it could impact a few real estate-related forms, such as the annual TRIM notices (property tax assessments). Currently, counties mail TRIM notices and other documents, including sample election ballots, to homeowners by first-class mail. Under HB 247, a county can opt for an online system, providing certain conditions are met, such as an "opt-in" system for collecting email addresses. Effective: Oct. 1, 2013.
Hidden liens no more. Sometimes governmental and quasi-governmental entities place liens on property that aren't known until closing, which can disrupt an otherwise good transaction. HB 267 by Realtor and Rep. John Wood (R-Winter Haven) requires these liens to be recorded in the county where the property is located in order to be valid. This bill only applies to liens entered by a governmental or quasi-governmental entity for services, fines, or penalties, and does not affect liens for taxes, non-ad valorem or special assessments, or utilities. Effective: Oct. 1, 2013.
New disclosure for residential leases. HB 77 by Rep. Elizabeth Porter (R-Lake City) contains a number of revisions to Florida's Landlord and Tenant Act. It also includes a new disclosure that must be given to tenants when they receive notice as to where their security deposits or advance rents are being held, if they'll receive interest on the money and so on. The bill also contains provisions about screens, recurring tenant violations of a lease, evictions after acceptance of partial rent, non-renewal notice requirements, writs of possession and the transfer of security deposits from a previous owner to a new landlord. Property managers are encouraged to review this legislation closely. Effective: July 1, 2013.
Green energy tax incentives. In 2008, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment providing tax breaks to residential property owners who install solar energy devices or wind-resistant materials. HB 277 by Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda (D-Tallahassee) and Rep. Jose Felix Diaz (R-Miami) creates rules to implement the tax break for solar energy devices installed on or after Jan. 1, 2013. The bill does not, however, shield windstorm mitigation upgrades from property taxes. That exemption was stripped out of the bill to win support from the House Finance & Tax Subcommittee. Effective: July 1, 2013.
Licensure changes for brokers, appraisers. SB 852 by Sen. Aaron Bean (R-Jacksonville) brings Florida appraisers into compliance with the Dodd-Frank Reform Act, enabling them to continue to perform appraisals on federally-related transactions. To help the Florida Real Estate Appraisal Board complete disciplinary actions within a year -- a federal requirement -- the state budget appropriates funds for nine new staff positions. The bill also takes a tougher stance against brokers who lose their license in disciplinary actions. If the Florida Real Estate Commission revokes an individual's broker's license, it also revokes any multiple licenses the broker may hold. Effective upon becoming law, unless otherwise provided.
In other appraisal news, lawmakers passed SB 1398 by Sen. Dorothy Hukill (R-Port Orange), allowing online pre-licensing courses to be offered for appraisers. Unlike real estate salespersons and brokers, appraisers currently may only take post-licensing classes via the Internet. Effective: July 1, 2013.
- $1.543 million for Florida International University to enhance the Florida Public Hurricane Loss Projection Model so it can assess flood damage resulting from hurricanes. Currently the model only assesses windstorm damage. This will help insurers better estimate the maximum loss that should be insured.
- $700,000 for the final phase of a study on ways to reduce the amount of nitrogen released from conventional septic tank systems. The study also looks at septic tank technologies.
- $500,000 to combat unlicensed activity.
- Funding for nine new positions at the Florida Real Estate Appraisal Board.
BILLS THAT DID NOT PASS
Phase out of the sales tax on commercial leases. Lawmakers understand that for Florida to be competitive with other states and online retailers, and considered pro-business by prospective employers and companies seeking to relocate, we must eliminate the sales tax on commercial leases. However, Florida still feels the pinch of lean budget years, and even a proposal to phase the tax out over six years failed to soften its $1.3 billion fiscal impact for some lawmakers. Florida Realtors will make this a priority next session, and will begin strategizing with all stakeholders early this summer. Working with Rep. Marlene O'Toole (R-Lady Lake) and Sen. Dorothy Hukill (R-Port Orange), who sponsored HB 629 and SB 656, respectively, Florida Realtors laid the groundwork on this key legislative initiative, and the House Speaker says he'll address this and other sales tax issues next session. That may also include sales tax on online purchases, a goal of SB 316 by Sen. Nancy Detert (R-Venice), which lost steam in the final weeks of the session. "This year was about educating legislators and stakeholders about the unfairness of Florida's sales tax on commercial leases," says Florida Realtors President Asher. "Because of the commitments we have received from legislative leaders, I feel confident we will be successful next year in our legislative efforts to roll back this tax."
Administrative review of property taxes. A bill sponsored by Polk County Realtor and attorney Rep. John Wood (R-Winter Haven) sought substantive changes to value adjustment boards and their review of property tax assessments. HB 1381 and its Senate companion, SB 1754 by Sen. Greg Evers (R-Crestview) contained improvements to current law, such as definitions for "just value," "market value" and "fair market value." However, the bills also included controversial provisions, prompting Rep. Wood to pull the measure.
Notifying tenants of pending foreclosure. HB 169 by Reps. Kionne McGhee (E-Miami) and Hazel Rogers (D-Lauderhill) and its companion Senate bill, SB 516 by Sen. Geraldine Thompson (D-Orlando), sought to give prospective tenants more notice that the property they're about to rent is in foreclosure. Florida Realtors was concerned the bills were too big of a solution for a small problem. Landlords would have been required to provide written notice that the lease may end earlier than the stated end date.