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County sues to stop ‘illegal’ liens against homeowners

Mark Parker



Low-income homeowners with poor credit could use a PACE loan for a roof replacement. Pinellas County officials hope to stop the controversial program. File photo.

At least 39 residents seeking critical home repairs could now lose their property due to “aggressive” contractors and a controversial loan program that doesn’t require a credit check or money down.

The property assessed clean energy program, or PACE, is typically only available for commercial projects. Three states – California, Missouri and Florida – allow homeowners to enter financial agreements they might not fully comprehend or can’t afford.

However, Pinellas County Attorney Jewel White told commissioners Tuesday that a local ordinance limits the funding mechanism to nonresidential properties. She also noted that the recently uncovered liens extend to residents throughout the county.

Commissioner Janet Long stopped White just 40 seconds into Tuesday’s briefing and asked if the Florida PACE Funding Agency (FPFA) could legally file the liens.

“We do not believe so, and that’s why we are filing suit,” White replied. “And it appears from our research that many, if not all of them, are homesteaded properties. We’ll be seeking an emergency hearing with the court expeditiously.”

Jamie Dinkins, special counsel for the FPFA, provided this statement to the Catalyst:

“We were just served with this lawsuit on Tuesday and have learned that the county intends to steamroll due process and homeowners’ rights by advancing their case much faster than the rules allow. We have been focusing our efforts on defending against this aggressive action that seeks to overturn years of Florida Supreme Court precedent and, more importantly, prevent homeowners from accessing needed hurricane-hardening improvements, just five weeks before hurricane season begins. We regret that the limited time Pinellas County’s actions have afforded us does not permit a more detailed comment.”

A tree down in North Shore, St. Petersburg, following Hurricane Ian in 2022. Photo by Joe Hamilton.

A few weeks ago, White explained to commissioners how the FPFA participated in a Leon County bond validation proceeding. While she said that “had nothing to do” with Pinellas, agency officials managed to include language in the order allowing it to operate locally without approval.

Commissioners granted White’s litigation request, and county attorneys subsequently found the agency had already filed 39 liens or notices. She said the legal team “just discovered this in the official records” and now seeks a court order stating “that they had no authority to do that in the first place.”

According to, the FPFA is a separate legal entity, public body and unit of government established by an interlocal agreement. It is the “authority” – White said financer – overseeing various program administrators, or home improvement contractors.

An FPFA cost calculator showed that someone in St. Petersburg seeking a $15,000 roof would put no money down and pay $146.87 monthly. However, the agency would collect that as a $1,762.44 annual payment on their property tax bill.

The website claims that the long-term, fixed-rate financing source “allows homeowners to do energy conservation and hurricane hardening improvements to their property.” That includes fixing roofs, air conditioners, windows, doors, water heaters and hurricane shutters.

It goes on to note that due to the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s “position on PACE assessments, a homeowner may have difficulty selling its (sic) home or refinancing its (sic) mortgage if the home is subject to a PACE assessment.”

Since PACE loans incorporate into property tax bills, which soar after a homeowner signs the agreement, some recipients – like the 39 Pinellas households – face losing their homes when unable to repay money borrowed and thousands more in interest.

The first of four answers to “Frequently Asked Questions” states that “any tax or assessment lien can cause you to lose your home.” The second relays that interest rates range from 6% to 9%, and closing fees are approximately 6.4% of the loan amount.

It adds, “PACE allows Floridians with impaired credit to live in safe and efficient homes.” The very next question asks if the agency takes advantage of disadvantaged homeowners.

The final question asks if contractors use dishonest sales tactics. FPFA officials denied both assertions in their answers.

“I assume the citizens were approached by aggressive salespeople,” White told commissioners. “Which is what I’ve heard in regard to many of the other issues related to PACE where we’ve seen that there were problems.”

PACE loans also cover solar panel installation. Photo provided.

She said Pinellas officials “need to figure out how to get a handle” on that. PACE providers are exempt from the Truth in Lending Act, and lack regulatory oversight.

Commissioner Renee Flowers relayed that PACE representatives are lobbying other county officials to allow them to provide residential loans in addition to the permitted commercial offerings. White noted the Florida Association of County Attorneys is aware and said PACE representatives filed liens against residential properties throughout Florida before taking appropriate legal action.

White explained that several various agencies, in addition to FPFA, provide PACE funding. However, she said the FPFA filed the local liens.

“In our opinion, they have no authority to be operating within Pinellas County,” White added. “If that’s the case, then in theory, many of those liens would be void.

“Now that we have gotten them served, we are going to be seeking some emergency action with the court to put an end to what they’re doing.”

While she believes the agency has violated state law, she said it “certainly” defied county ordinance.

Commissioner Dave Eggers expressed his desire to notify homeowners of the perilous situation. However, White said FPFA began filing the liens in January, and there is “a good possibility” that contractors completed the related work.

Eggers wants to notify residents regardless of the project status, and County Administrator Barry Burton agreed. He will explore that and the permitting measure with staff members.

Home improvement projects require county permits, and Eggers said they could stop approval. He also noted that PACE loans supersede mortgages, “which is one of the reasons we haven’t approved this method.”

A county communications director said she would work closely with the legal team on a potential public service announcement. Meanwhile, White said commissioners and homeowners could expect the FPFA to file additional liens, underscoring the need for the emergency order.

“We found out they were operating under the radar with no notice to anybody – and had been doing this for months now,” she added. “So, I’m particularly glad that we came to you all en masse to file suit. Our best remedy right now lies with the court.”





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