By Jan Bergemann
First of all: The Thank-You Notes!
Thanks to Governor Jeb Bush, who asked for this Task Force to be created.
Most of the ineffective association laws we find in the Florida Statutes today are influenced and written with the help of CAI. Everybody has seen many problems in these associations. This was shown at the HOA/Condo hearings on September 23-24, 2003 in Miami.
Times for excuses are over. It is false that “just a few ‘disgruntled’ persons are complaining.” (“Disgruntled” is the favorite word of the industry.) Every responsible person in the State of Florida has to realize that the time to play ostrich is over. Now our legislators are asked to fulfill their fiduciary duties to protect the consumers against these abuses. Our Home Is Our Castle! Don't let it be destroyed by greedy industry partisans!
As you all remember, it was our vision that only parties with a vested interest should be members of a Task Force and make proposals regarding future legislation. Homebuilders, developers and consumers have a vested interest. Community developers are in the business of selling the homes and horror headlines in the media about abuses and foreclosures sure don't help their sales. Consumers, meaning homebuyers, want a nice, peaceful home -- not a share in association politics. These shared interests can be coordinated, but for example the money-making interests of HOA attorneys don't fit in this picture.
Nor realtors? Helpful profession for builders and consumers, but the only thing realtors should be concerned about is the correct disclosure of all pertinent facts during the sales of the homes. Many of the court battles wouldn't occur, if all the little details would be honestly disclosed prior to sale.
Consider this fact: About 50% of the members of this Task Force are attorneys! "Maybe we should consider renaming these associations from homeowners' associations to attorneys' associations, because they often run the show anyway!” was a comment we heard.
And the "Homeowners' Bill of Rights" the CAI eagerly tries to promote? Many feel that is just some more lip-service, which will most likely be violated by the same people promoting it!
Just some more window washing?
First issue for the day was FLAGS and whether homeowners’ should be granted the same rights as condominium-unit owners to fly the United States flag and military service flags. Actually, the Task Force members voted in favor, despite the fact there were many unanswered questions as to how many can be flown at the same time? Up to SIX? A motion to finally include the words “flagpole” and/or “bracket” into FS 720.304(2) was defeated -- as expected. Reason given: More research necessary! My opinion: It would give boards less power to prosecute homeowners. But this will not be the last time this will be brought up!
Second issue on the agenda: Association -- Whether the definition of “homeowners’ associations” should be amended to include organizations and entities presently operating homeowners’ associations, but not clearly within the scope of the definition.
Should different kinds of communities by included? After discussion, for very different reasons, the panel voted: NO! While consumers argued that nobody else should suffer from the bad regulations of FS 720, industry representatives considered the fact that these other communities should not be involved in the existing problems.
Joe Gorman, President of the POA of The Villages, feels that owners always seem to be the losers in the debate about HOAs. Homeowners need to be the winners in this debate.
The task force needs to focus on the important issues. The flag issue is important, but I am not sure that it would rank with the half-dozen or so most important issues. Homeowners need better control of their communities and boards that are more responsive to the needs and interests of residents. Only with true reform of HOA laws will residents be the winners here.
One of the main issues discussed was "mandatory" versus "voluntary" associations. It was clearly noted by all parties that voluntary associations could only be changed to mandatory associations by 100% consent of all homeowners. Case law is easily available and attempts by certain groups to force their neighbors into a lifestyle they don't want should cease. There has been a trend in recent years, where neighbors try to bully neighbors into joining mandatory associations. So far, all legal attempts to do so have been utterly defeated at very high expense to the defeated parties. Again, this goes back to vested interests, as described in the Florida Statutes.
The members of the Task Force decided to leave the definition “as is” in the moment until further discussion. More detailed information is needed in order to make informed decisions.
Before the first meeting of the Task Force adjourned, CCFJ President Jan Bergemann handed out copies of the CCFJ Bullet Sheet to all members of the Task Force. (This is actually a summary of problems and a consumers' wish list, titled Most Important Criteria For Legislative Changes.) We hope that the members of the Task Force will read this document and will be willing to have an open discussion about it. It is obvious that without enforcement by a government agency all best intentions will go nowhere. Homeowners just don't have the finances to fight for their rights, even the obvious ones, especially since they are fighting their own money. We make reasonable suggestions how to finance this agency, using funds collected by the owners. This way could even save regular tax dollars, nowadays used for the many lawsuits pending in Florida courts. Yet there are no local remedies, as a Task Force member suggests. The lawsuits are ongoing all over the state and the number is growing!
At the end of the meeting Chan Gerber, Vice President of CHIP, distributed the CHIP Position Paper created by members of his organization. The meeting was adjourned and consumers are looking forward to the meeting in Coral Gables on October 17, 2003, hopefully with more positive results. On the agenda: Removal of Directors and Alternative Dispute Resolution.
Many decisions by the DBPR definitely didn't meet the consensus of the consumers. One example is the contract with the CAI to provide education to boards and homeowners. We think that part of this money (a total of $500,000), paid by condo-owners, is being used by this trade organization to lobby against any homeowner-friendly bills.
Another example is the attempt to deregulate Community Association Managers in the last legislative session. Even when regulated, there are enough problems with dishonest managers, who should be punished and their licenses removed. Slapping wrists doesn't help the cause. With regulations in place, the many honest managers willing to obey the rules would automatically gain a much better reputation. Weeding out the bad guys helps the whole honest membership -- as in many other professions whose reputations are being destroyed by dishonest members.
We are looking forward to the next meeting of the Task Force and will continue to propose improvements to the status quo. We just hope that many more Task Force members will be willing to listen to these proposals with an open mind. Changes are necessary for the sake of all parties with a vested interest!