Who rules:
Condo owners or associations?
Article Courtesy of the Miami Herald
Published February 16, 2004
BY NATALIE P. McNEAL

Many homeowners say they feel powerless in the face of associations and that the relationship needs a better balance.

Town-home owner Kathleen Clements was upset because she said her community's pool was closed and children were jumping over the fence to try to swim.

Clements withheld payment of her homeowner's association fee one month, in March, until the problem was fixed.

Clements resumed payment in April, but she was charged late fees and her association started foreclosure proceedings on her Serena Lakes home near Kendall. She ended up paying $1,500 in attorney's fees to stop them.

''I had no idea that because of $60 I could lose my house,'' said Clements, who has launched a website http://www.hoavictims.com. "It seems like they are abusing their power.''

Clements is one of many homeowners who say they feel powerless in the face of associations. In Broward, 353 condo owners filed complaints with the state in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2003; in Miami-Dade, 403.

BETTER BALANCE

In response, two groups -- one for condo owners, one for homeowners -- are studying the relationship between homeowners and associations with an eye toward striking a better balance.

The House Select Committee on Condominium Association Governance, headed by state Rep. Julio Robaina, R-Miami, and the Homeowners Association Task Force organized last year by Gov. Jeb Bush have held hearings throughout Florida.

After months of passionate testimony from disgruntled condo and homeowners, both groups hope to see laws passed this year to tighten association regulations.

''Either these associations work like magic or they are little mafias that completely disregard the current statutes,'' said Robaina, who represents parts of Miami and South Miami-Dade County. "The statutes are so lax and the Department of Business and Professional Regulation is also very, very limited in what it can do.''

The condo committee's recommendations were submitted to the House speaker in January by Robaina, and he hopes to have legislation passed in March. He met with Bush Thursday over the suggestions.

The committee is lobbying for potential condo buyers to be told of any pending litigation against the association and information about the building structure.

The committee advocates background checks for potential association board members, two-year term limits for board members, and creating an ombudsman's office with a five-member commission appointed by the state that can audit statements and conduct investigations.

''An ombudsman can nip problems in the bud,'' Robaina said.

MEDIATION PROPOSAL

The Homeowners Association Task Force, made up of home builders, Realtors, consumer advocates and lawyers, proposes mandatory mediation between disgruntled homeowners and associations.

''The goal of that is to have many of the disputes settled before they go to court,'' said William Sklar, co-chairman of the task force and director of the University of Miami's Institute on Condominium & Cluster Development.

Other proposals: requiring warranties for common areas; competitive bidding on contracts; the right to get notices for board meetings when special assessments are proposed; and a guaranteed right that homeowners can speak on any agenda item.

''Homeowner association regulations are less developed or evolved compared to condominiums,'' Sklar said.

Despite the recommendations, some of the task force members feel the proposals don't have enough teeth. Homeowners want a state agency to regulate homeowner associations, funded with a $4 fee from every owner. The fee is much like one paid by by condo owners to the state for oversight.

''The recommendation is just more lip service and paperwork,'' said Jan Bergemann, a member of the task force and president of Cyber Citizens for Justice, a homeowners association consumer advocacy group. "The recommendations are only good if they are enforced.''

Bergemann's group is lobbying hard for the fee.

But Sklar, who is also an attorney, opposes adding another layer of government.

''There's not enough money in the budget to start with,'' Sklar said. ``Why expand the condominium bureau to cover the homeowner's associations when it hasn't been able to regulate condos in 30 years?''