Families lose homes after Florida cities turbocharge code enforcement foreclosures
Jessica Shroyer will become homeless tomorrow if the city of Fort Pierce sells her home as planned.
The gray clapboard home is more than 100 years old and shows its age, with missing shingles on the roof and sections of stripped siding. But it’s been in her family, and paid off, for decades. Shroyer, who’s 42, has primarily lived in the house since her father died in 2017.
She’s at risk of losing the house because the city of Fort Pierce, like a number of cities across Florida, has begun to aggressively foreclose on homes in the city for violations ranging from unmowed lawns to unsafe structures.
The foreclosures have brought in millions for the cities, but have taken away homes that have been in families for generations, particularly in heavily Black and lower income neighborhoods. And the lawyer who has aggressively pursued the practice is trying to make cities in South Florida next.
“It’s my life,” Shroyer said of her Fort Pierce home. “If they take this property, they are ripping my life away.”
Last May, the city filed a lawsuit to foreclose on the house over unpaid property fines going back all the way to 2004. The city said the amount due from the fines, some of which increase by $100 a day, is more than $240,000.
That came as news to Shroyer, who had no idea the house had unpaid fines. She said her father, Gene, had always done his own maintenance on the house.
She and her sisters, Kathleene Heminger Shroyer and Geri Shroyer, are desperate to find a solution to keep the house, which each of them has called home at some point.
In late 2021, the city signed a contract with an outside attorney named Matt Weidner to file lawsuits against the owners of these properties.
Weidner is trying to get several South Florida cities, including Davie and Boca Raton, to join in, calling homes subject to foreclosure because of aggressive enforcement of code violations a potential goldmine of untapped revenue.
Weidner first attracted national attention for his work helping homeowners keep their properties in the wake of the Great Recession. Now he helps cities take people’s homes away.
Fort Pierce is the ninth jurisdiction in Florida that hired Weidner to file these kinds of cases.
Weidner has criss-crossed the state speaking at and sponsoring conferences targeting local officials and has made direct pitches to cities all over the state, city records obtained by the Miami Herald show.
Cities don’t have to pay anything up front. Instead, they give him a cut of whatever he recovers.
The Herald investigation found that Weidner has turbocharged the number of foreclosure lawsuits filed by many of the cities that have inked deals with him. Fort Pierce had filed one such lawsuit in the five years before hiring Weidner in late 2021. Last year, the city filed 57.
The city of Miami — with a population nine times that of Fort Pierce, 127 miles to the north — has filed fewer than 50 of these lawsuits in the past decade. In Miami, unlike in Fort Pierce, the city’s own attorneys handle the cases — though Miami’s code enforcement practices have themselves recently come under fire for concerns over alleged preferential treatment given to the husband of the city attorney.
Weidner isn’t the only private attorney in Florida who has filed these kinds of lawsuits on behalf of cities, but he appears to be among the most prolific.
The Herald spent more than six months analyzing roughly 775 lawsuits that Weidner filed on behalf of nine cities and counties over the past eight years. The Herald reviewed thousands of pages of legal documents, filed more than two dozen record requests and spoke with numerous property owners who have been the target of these lawsuits as well as lawyers who have defended against them.
While the lawsuits have undoubtedly targeted some properties that deserved to be foreclosed upon, the Herald’s investigation shows that Weidner’s work on behalf of these cities has also had collateral damage.
According to court documents and interviews, numerous property owners complained that they hadn’t been properly notified of the lawsuits and hadn’t been given adequate time to mount their defense.
More than 70% of the property owners named in these suits didn’t have an attorney defending them, according to the Herald’s analysis of court records. Several told the Herald they couldn’t afford one.
The lawsuits have been filed predominantly in heavily Black neighborhoods, which property owners see as part of a mission to gentrify and redevelop their neighborhoods by pushing them out.
Legal experts said that the nature of Weidner’s financial arrangement raises serious concerns that profit motive could dictate which cases — and how many — the cities pursue.
“I think it’s unconscionable that the cities and the counties are participating in this,” said Danaya Wright, a law professor at the University of Florida who also sits on her local code enforcement board.
Weidner first began doing this kind of work in his native St. Petersburg in 2015 and has filed more than 425 lawsuits on behalf of the city since then.
Overall, just under half of the lawsuits he has filed throughout Florida since 2015 have resulted in foreclosures, with the homes being sold at auction to a new owner.
While the amount recovered in each of the cases is typically modest — the houses have fetched an average of $26,000 when they’ve gone to auction — the fees have added up.
In total, Weidner’s firm has been paid nearly $3 million in fees and expenses, say documents obtained by the Herald via records requests filed with each of the jurisdictions that hired his firm.
Weidner spoke with the Herald during the reporting process, but didn’t respond to a set of detailed questions sent by the Herald ahead of publication.
Weidner told the Herald that from his perspective, the problem isn’t that he’s filing too many cases — the problem is that other cities aren’t filing enough.
“My crusade here is the fact that there are billions of dollars that’s owed to the taxpayers of these municipalities that’s not being collected,” Weidner said. “The fact that Miami and all these places are not collecting this is one of the greatest examples of government mismanagement.”
The lawsuits Weidner has filed have been brought against properties that racked up fines from violations of city and county codes — a series of rules designed to ensure that properties do not fall into disrepair, pose a safety hazard or diminish the value of nearby homes.
While the code enforcement fines at the Shroyer home and many other properties result from serious structural problems, several of the foreclosure lawsuits reviewed by the Herald were triggered by violations as minor as an overgrown lawn.
“They would send me a letter and say, ‘Hey, you need to mow your lawn,’ And I would do it,” said Ryan Newberry, who owned a property in Bradenton that was the target of a lawsuit brought by Weidner on behalf of the city in May 2021. Newberry had already torn down the house on his property after the city had deemed it unsafe years earlier. Then the city said he owed $75,000 — the maximum fine permitted by Bradenton’s ordinances — and Newberry reluctantly decided to sign the property over to Bradenton to settle the suit four months after it was filed.
“In my opinion, it’s very corrupt,” he said.
Bradenton’s city administrator, Rob Perry, said the city tries to reach settlements with owners, rather than foreclosing, but acknowledged that sometimes the only option they can reach is for property owners to turn over their properties to the city.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do with them, to be honest,” Perry said.
On a recent morning, Wade Clark stood in front of the shell of what used to be his home in Clearwater.
The roof caved in and was removed a few years ago. The home’s only inhabitants now are the small green lizards that dart up and down its gray concrete walls.
Clark’s father had originally built the house in the 1920s for Clark’s grandmother and even in its reduced state, there are hints of its past: Two faded red lions hug the letter C, for Clark, atop the wrought-iron gate in front of the house. Clark, 78, points with pride to the front step, with brilliant inlaid stone, that he built himself.
“Back in the day, it was a good neighborhood,” he said. “People were very close knit.”
The house is a short walk away from the old spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies, and Clark recalled that as a child he and his friends had earned pocket money retrieving and selling home run balls that had soared over the ballpark’s fence.
Clark’s grandmother lived in the house for decades, followed by his uncle. After his uncle’s death, Clark, a veteran and onetime Clearwater police officer, moved in. In 2011, his two living siblings transferred any claim they had on the house to Clark.
It was Clark’s home when he was fighting cancer that started in his colon, spread to his kidney, and wound up costing him chunks of both. At one point a doctor told him he would have months left to live.
During that time, the house — already in need of work — fell into further disrepair. Clearwater filed code liens on the house in 2017 and 2019, citing a number of issues ranging from an overgrown lawn to problems with the home’s roof, exterior and sidewalk.
Clark recovered from his cancer and was committed to fixing up the house.
But there was a problem.
He wasn’t considered the legal owner. The house had passed from one generation to the next without clearing a legal process called probate, which resolves ownership of properties in the absence of a will.
This situation is common, particularly in lower-income communities, said Wright, the University of Florida professor, who has done extensive research on property and estate law.
Wright said that not being the undisputed owner of a property title can have a cascading effect that makes maintaining a home more difficult.
“After four or five years, it becomes a nightmare,” she said. “They can’t get a building permit if they can’t prove title. They can’t get a mortgage if they can’t prove title.”
Clark’s aunt also had a claim to the property, so even though Clark had been living there for years, he filed suit on Nov. 29, 2019, to have a judge declare him the true owner.
He hoped that when the house was legally in his name, he would qualify for a Veterans Administration loan to fix it up.
As his case was winding its way through the Pinellas County court system, Weidner filed a lawsuit on behalf of the city of Clearwater on April 1, 2020, to foreclose on the property. The city would ultimately say that Clark owed more than $550,000.
If the house had been legally established as Clark’s primary residence, the city would have been barred from filing suit against him, but since his ownership rights were still in flux, he fell into a gray area where the suit was allowed.
Clark, “completely broke,” was able to find a lawyer to help him in his case to win ownership of the house, but wasn’t able to get a lawyer to help him defend the foreclosure suit.
Clark filed a handwritten response soon after he was notified of the foreclosure lawsuit, laying out his fight with cancer and his history as a veteran and police officer. He asked the court to grant him 12 months to make repairs on the house to bring it into compliance.
Then on Sept. 14, 2020, Clark won his other case and was declared the owner of the house.
Clark’s handwritten appeal and his victory giving him ownership of the house didn’t make a difference.
On Oct. 7, 2020, a judge ruled to foreclose on the property. It was sold the following month, nearly one year after Clark filed his suit to claim ownership.
Clark sees the foreclosure push by cities like Clearwater and St. Petersburg as part of a broader effort to redevelop historically Black neighborhoods and push out Black residents.
“That was the attitude, gentrification across America,” he said. “I was not the only person in this town that this happened to.”
The city of Clearwater bristled at suggestions of racial bias in its code enforcement lawsuits.
“That allegation is offensive and demonstrably untrue,” said Joelle Castelli, the city’s communications director. “These cases are initiated by neighbor complaints.”
But in both Clearwater and St. Petersburg, the areas where Weidner has filed the most foreclosure lawsuits are also the areas with the highest share of Black residents, the Herald’s analysis found.
Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, whose administration introduced the foreclosure program, had no explanation for why the preponderance of foreclosures were in heavily Black areas.
“I don’t know why that would be,” he said. “But there certainly wasn’t any target.”
The loss of homes that would be passed down from one generation of Black families to the next is significant, because the share of Black families that inherit wealth is half the share of white families that do, according to research by economists at the Federal Reserve Board.
And the average inheritance received by white families is nearly three times the average inheritance received by Black families.
In lower-income Black neighborhoods, such as the Clearwater neighborhood that Clark’s house is located in, property title issues have a major intergenerational impact, Wright, the University of Florida professor, said.
“The amount of wealth that has been lost in these low-income communities is phenomenal,” she said.
Malekia and Maya McKinney grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood in St. Petersburg that has been one of the biggest targets of the city’s code enforcement lawsuits. Since 2015, there have been 107 lawsuits filed against properties in the same Zip code, and roughly two-thirds of those cases resulted in foreclosures.
The sisters’ names are still carved into the concrete sidewalk in front of the St. Petersburg property where they grew up.
The house is no longer there. It was demolished after hurricane damage and subsequent shoddy repairs rendered it uninhabitable.
But their mother continued to make mortgage payments on the property even after the house was gone, hoping to pass it down to her daughters.
As Malekia stood on the property recently with Maya, it was as though she was back in her childhood home.
“I can literally close my eyes and tell you where everything was,” she said.
The sisters hoped to rebuild on the property and raise their own families there. It had been the site of childhood birthday parties and family cookouts. They imagined building one large house, or maybe two smaller ones side-by-side. At one point they’d even gotten blueprints drawn up.
But that all changed a few years ago when St. Petersburg foreclosed over unpaid property liens stemming from the house demolition and maintenance.
Malekia says her mother had been paying back the cost of the demolition, but had fallen behind on payments when she was getting cancer treatment. Her mother ultimately died in 2011.
But it wasn’t until 2018 that the city filed suit to foreclose on the property — initially filing against McKinney’s mother, Donna Grayson, despite her being dead for seven years.
“How can you foreclose on a dead person?” Malekia wondered.
Maya wrote a letter to the court begging to find a solution to keep the property.
“My sister and I watched my mother fight for this property, struggling to keep up with payments our entire childhood even into early adulthood and for this reason we would like a fair chance at keeping and maintaining our mother’s property,” Maya wrote to the court on May 9, 2018.
The sisters tried everything they could think of to hold on to it.
They hired a paralegal to help them file responses in the case — arguing that because the city had waited so long to file its case, the statute of limitations had passed.
Malekia went to the city’s code enforcement office to try to work out a deal.
“A lot of people don’t think they’re able to fight against the city,” she said. “I went down there diligently.”
But all of their efforts went nowhere.
The mortgage on the property had been paid off, but they were told that the only way they could keep the property would be if they could pay off the $28,000 outstanding on the lien balance.
“We were like, for what?” Malekia said. “Why would we pay $28,000 for something we already own?”
The sisters didn’t have access to that kind of money, and so on Oct. 11, 2018 the property was auctioned off and bought by the city of St. Petersburg for $30,000, a little more than the balance owed on the liens. The sisters had nothing to show for the sale and the property remains vacant today — in no better shape than before the lawsuit.
“That was the only inheritance we had from my mother,” Malekia said.
“They took it away from us.”
‘They could say they tried’
Weidner agrees that code enforcement liens shouldn’t sit, accruing additional fines, for years on end.
“I argue that you as a municipality have a duty to bring these things earlier,” he said. “The cornerstone of what I’m arguing for is active code enforcement.”
But he insists that property owners are given numerous opportunities to solve their code issues — from going before code enforcement boards earlier in the process to programs established in St. Petersburg and other cities to give property owners a pathway to solve their code issues and keep their property.
“In many cases, these people have had years of opportunity to get relief,” Weidner said.
St. Petersburg said that it has forgiven more than $5 million in code enforcement penalties on approximately 500 properties since Weidner’s contract with the city began through various programs the city offers. That works out to an average of about $10,000 per property.
Philip Jackson, a retired Clearwater police detective, entered one such program in St. Petersburg after the city filed a foreclosure suit against him in 2019. He said that the program’s promise was a far cry from its reality.
The city had knocked down the home Jackson owned against his wishes as he was resolving title issues after purchasing it two years earlier.
When he entered the program, he was given 30 days to submit blueprints and obtain permits and then was required to build a new house within a year. The liens wouldn’t be forgiven until after he completed the program, which made obtaining financing to build the house even more challenging.
The deadlines would have been difficult to meet under the best of circumstances, but Jackson had entered the program in late 2020 as pandemic-related supply chain issues were jacking up construction costs and banks were tightening lending.
More than two years later, Jackson has yet to rebuild and is still engaged in a long-running legal dispute with the city stemming from the original suit.
Jackson is skeptical that the terms of the program were designed to actually help property owners looking to build or rehabilitate a home.
“It was just set up so that they could say they tried,” he said. “It never was meant to actually help people that owned property keep property.”
‘We were railroaded’
In Fort Pierce, the Shroyer sisters have been trying to think of any way to avoid the same fate, but since their father’s home also never cleared probate they have few options. Jessica Shroyer and Kathleene Shroyer Heminger both submitted letters to the court begging for help. They tried to find a lawyer, but they have limited financial resources and few lawyers were willing to take on the city.
They asked about trying to work out a payment plan, but were told that wasn’t an option. The city offered to let them settle for $30,000, a fraction of what they owe, but still far beyond the sisters’ means.
“I live paycheck to paycheck, I don’t have thousands of dollars,” said Jessica Shroyer, who works at a nearby Walmart.
Fort Pierce didn’t respond to questions about the Shroyer case or its contract with Weidner to bring foreclosure lawsuits.
The legal process can be both daunting and baffling without the help of a lawyer to navigate the rules.
Kathleene Shroyer Heminger, who lives with her husband and two boys in South Dakota, and Geri Shroyer, who lives in North Carolina, flew to Florida late last year to try to plead their case at a final hearing December 1. When they arrived at the courthouse they were told by a bailiff that the hearing had been postponed. But in fact, as all three sisters stood outside the courtroom doors, a judge ruled that the city could foreclose on the house.
Weidner heard that they had been denied entry to the hearing and filed a motion requesting a re-do on the hearing out of fairness.
But the judge in the case, Robert Belanger, was unmoved.
Jessica Shroyer and Kathleene Shroyer Heminger had written letters in response to the initial complaint, but they hadn’t submitted additional responses to Weidner’s request that the court rule in the city’s favor. Because of that, Belanger wrote, he had no choice but to rule in the city’s favor. And because they were potential heirs to the property but not the undisputed owner, the judge wrote that they lacked standing to weigh in on the fines connected to the property.
Belanger told the Herald that he had given the Shroyer sisters numerous opportunities to address the situation, but they failed to do so.
For Kathleene Shroyer Heminger, the trip, which cost more than $2,000, was demoralizing.
“I feel like we were railroaded,” she said. “We never got the day in court we were supposed to.”
The Miami Herald identified 779 lien-related foreclosure cases Matt Weidner has filed on behalf of city and county governments across Florida. These include St. Petersburg, Hillsborough County, Bradenton, Clearwater, Largo, Fruitland Park, Fort Pierce, Madeira Beach and Yankeetown.
The Herald then manually reviewed the court documents from each lawsuit and built a database recording relevant details about each case. Separately, the Herald also filed more than two-dozen records requests with governments that Weidner has represented and governments in South Florida.
Data: Miami Herald/McClatchy analysis, County Court Records, City of St. Petersburg, U.S. Census Bureau 2021 American Community Survey
Map Imagery: 2023 TerraMetrics, Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO
Sohail Al-Jamea — art direction
Gabby McCall — illustration
Rachel Handley — illustration
Susan Merriam — data visualization and development