Politics & Government

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, lawmakers haggle over millions in foreclosure cash

TALLAHASSEE — Florida is ranked No. 1 in the nation in the number of homes in foreclosures and the number of people on the verge of losing their homes.

But the Sunshine State is last in the nation when it comes to using the billions of dollars in available housing aid from a national mortgage settlement, according to a report released Thursday.

Six months after the nation's largest banks signed a $25 billion mortgage settlement in the wake of the robo-signing scandal, Florida and Texas are the only states that have not outlined a plan for how to use their share.

About $300 million is sitting in an escrow account. Attorney General Pam Bondi and the Florida Legislature are haggling over who is legally entitled to spend the money.

A report by Enterprise Community Partners found that most states have already begun using their portion of the settlement to help home­owners, through programs like mortgage counseling, neighborhood revitalization and legal assistance.

Some states used all of their settlement money to help homeowners, while others diverted the funds to help shore up budget shortages or give tax breaks to businesses.

The settlement terms dictate that the money should be used specifically for housing-related issues, but lawmakers in Florida could decide to put the money to other uses. Consumer advocates say that would be disappointing.

"There's a lot of money coming into Florida, and if it's used in the right way, there's a lot of opportunity," said Andrew Jakabovics, a researcher with Enterprise Community Partners, an affordable-housing group. "It could really speed up the recovery."

Bondi has said repeatedly that she wants to use the money for housing-related initiatives, and she believes she has the sole authority to decide where the money should go.

"We are diligently working to get this money distributed as soon as possible to help homeowners," she said. "I'm not going to talk about backroom conversations, but I'll tell you I'm working as hard as I can, my staff is working as hard as they can. This money needs to go to homeowners. That's where it was meant to go, and that's where it should go."

Leaders in the Legislature believe they have the legal authority to decide how state funds are spent. Lawmakers have not ruled out using the money for nonhousing-related issues.

While Bondi and state lawmakers haggle over who should get to spend the money, Florida's foreclosure rate continues to spike, even as national foreclosures are on the decline. For the first time since 2005, Florida recently became the state with the country's highest foreclosure rate, according to RealtyTrac.

One in every 117 Florida housing units had a foreclosure filing in the third quarter, more than twice the national average. One in five homeowners are delinquent on their mortgage, and likely to lose their homes soon without help. Foreclosure starts jumped 24 percent in Florida last month.