Wednesday, November 24, 2010 at 10:58 a.m.
A year ago, Fabian and Jocelyn Ferguson found themselves with no place to live. Thanksgiving was a few days away and they needed a place to go with their two young children for the holidays. They, like many South Florida families, had lost their own home to foreclosure.
So Jocelyn went to Pastor Jerry, the leader at her church, and asked for help. "I know somebody," he said. "Give me a few days."
When he called back, he had Mark Guerette on the line. Guerette, a mortgage broker whose home has been in foreclosure for three and a half years, had started taking advantage of an obscure Florida law that allows people to claim ownership of a property after they occupy and maintain it for seven years. The law, called "adverse possession," is a sort of squatter's rights. Guerette drove around North Lauderdale looking for houses that had been neglected or vandalized, then matched them up with desperate tenants. This unusual practice got him featured in a New York Times article
earlier this month.
Guerette had the Fergusons in a new home by November 22, 2009. They spent the holidays there but ended up moving out at the end of the year: The property was plagued by back taxes and utility bills. Guerette expected them to pay these costs. So they moved to another house, on a quiet, modest street in North Lauderdale.
"It's been a blessing for us," says Jocelyn, balancing her daughter on her lap while dinner cooks on the stove. "We didn't know where to go with two children."
Guerette says he did charge people rent based on their ability to pay: "I collected a lot more rent on some properties than on others," he says. He distances himself from other empty-home entrepreneurs who have profited from rent on land they didn't own.
Fabian Ferguson thinks he got a fair deal. "We want to take over the adverse possession and pay the property taxes," he says.
Fabian works as a mover, so he's seen a lot of families torn away from properties they could no longer afford. He's talked with a neighbor across the street who does maintenance on bank-owned properties and knows that keeping a house unoccupied isn't cheap.
"When we moved in, I thought there would be snakes in the house because the grass was so high," says Jocelyn. The Fergusons cut the grass and installed ceiling fans and kitchen fixtures. For its part, the bank didn't voice an objection to Guerette's scheme: Most of his due-diligence calls to banks, informing them of his plans for their properties, went unanswered.
But the State of Florida is after Guerette. A Coral Springs detective and two prosecutors brought him in for a two-and-a-half-hour meeting but couldn't bring anything against him. A couple of months later, he got a call saying he was under investigation. Now he faces charges for a "scheme to defraud" and a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. He's set to go to court next month, and his lawyer advised him to stop taking any money for the properties.
Guerette says that prosecutors found five or six former tenants of Guerette's who were willing to testify against him. Now Fabian Ferguson is being called in for a deposition as well.
"To throw ten years at him, that's crazy," Ferguson says. "If the state allowed this, they could have a couple of million dollars in taxes paid off instantly."
He reflects on Mark Guerette's unorthodox plan: "Either it's a blessing or it's an extremely good scheme."