Four proposals to protect homeowners from foreclosure-related abuses and increase resources to keep them in their homes were filed this week as lawmakers ready for a legislative session that already includes a long-debated “fast-track” foreclosure bill.

The bills, filed Wednesday by Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, would help homeowners by reducing their loan amounts through principal reductions, shrinking the number of years banks can pursue a homeowner for unpaid debt, and giving the attorney general more power to investigate law firms.

Soto, who as a House Representative from 2007 to 2012 pushed for a stronger investigation of alleged wrongdoing by the state’s large so-called “foreclosure mills”, said his proposals are an alternative to legislation that seeks to fix the housing crisis by hastening repossessions.

“This vision stands in stark contrast to the numerous bills filed over the past few years with the sole intention of kicking thousands of Florida’s working families out of their homes for the sake of expediency,” said Soto, a real estate and family law attorney.

For the fourth consecutive session, a bill (HB 87) has been filed that would allow a judge to demand the homeowner prove why a foreclosure judgment shouldn’t be issued if a bank’s documents are deemed sufficient. Consumer advocates fear the bill will give homeowners little time to muster a defense.

Bill sponsor Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, said she believes the proposal has a chance of passing this session, which begins Tuesday, following years of deliberation and refinement.

“Florida has one of the slowest foreclosure systems in the country,” Passidomo said earlier this year. “We need to protect borrowers’ rights, but also efficiently move the process along.”

As of Dec. 31, Florida had an estimated 371,120 pending foreclosure cases in its court system.

Three of Soto’s bills — SB 1236, 1226, and 1218 — have matching legislation filed in the House. A bill (SB 1228) that would limit the amounts banks can recoup in unpaid debt after a short sale is not yet sponsored in the House.

Rep. Jose Rodriguez, D-Miami, is working with Soto on SB 1218, which would make it a violation of Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act to file false evidence in foreclosure proceedings. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi was barred from investigating law firms accused of foreclosure malpractice because the courts said the allegations were not technically violations of the act.

Soto said he knows his proposals will face resistance, but he believes he’ll be able to at least tack some of the language onto Passidomo’s bill.

“I am mindful of the fact that this is going to be a bit of a battle,” said Soto. “But there will be at least one foreclosure bill moving through and that provides an arena for amendments.”

by Kimberly Miller