Article Courtesy of The Tampa
By D'Ann Lawrence White
February 13, 2017
RIVERVIEW Tina and Luis Lopez have owned their
Rivercrest home for 12 years, raised two children there, even taken part
in community events including the holiday decorating contest.
Now, they're just
one step away from eviction not for failing to keep up
the payments like so many homeowners during the Great
Recession but for missing one annual homeowners
association fee that amounted to no more than $150.
Worse yet, they even have a canceled
check showing they made the payment.
Still, late fees, lawyers costs and liens that have
accrued in the seven years since then combined with a
notification system that favors the homeowners
association over the homeowners landed their property
on the auction block.
Only a judge can keep them in their home now. A hearing
on their appeal of the sale was held Jan. 25 and they
await a ruling.
"We were good neighbors. We followed the rules," said
Tina Lopez, 43. "How can people be so cold-hearted?"
The Lopez family is just one of the 1,386 owners of single-family homes,
town homes and villas who are expected to pay dues each January to the
Rivercrest Community Association. But they're not the only ones raising
questions about the association's aggressive pursuit of fees.
This approach can end in foreclosures that attract investors who open
the community to rentals a concern of former association board member
Cheryl Cusack. In the past two years, Cusack said, the number of rentals
has grown to account for 39 percent of all homes in Rivercrest.
"These are the people who are supposed to be looking out for residents.
They're supposed to make Rivercrest a better, safer community," she
said. "Personal agendas, egos and the need for power have gotten in the
way and morphed the homeowners association into a money-making machine
at the expense of the community and its residents."
In 2015, the Tampa law firm that goes after fees for the homeowners
association settled a class action suit in which it was accused of
misleading property owners about consumer rights, inflating debts, and
failing to give them a chance to agree on fee amounts.
Michael Greenwald, the Boca Raton attorney who brought the lawsuit, said
the Tampa firm, Bush Ross, makes its money by collecting from individual
homeowners rather than taking a flat fee from the many associations it
This puts homeowners at a big disadvantage, Greenwald said.
"In its effort to collect delinquent homeowners' fees," he said, "Bush
Ross takes legal action that can result in property owners losing their
Upon settlement of the class action suit, 258 property owners
including the Lopez family in Rivercrest received checks of $300 from
But the settlement proved disastrous for the Lopezes. They thought it
meant they were finally even with the homeowners association. As turns
out, their debt just spiraled faster.
The family's troubles, they say, began in 2009 when the homeowners
association failed to record the Lopez's annual $150 dues payment.
The association doesn't send out bill notices, expecting property owners
on their own to send in the money each January. The Lopezes paid it
late, May instead of January, but Lopez has a copy as she does for each
of the 12 years they've lived in Rivercrest.
"They never notified us of any problem so we had no reason to think they
hadn't received our check," she said.
Brian Smith, who lives down the street from the Lopezes, also faulted
the association for its lack of notice and for what he called
"Residents are living in a state of fear," Smith said. "The HOA expects
us to pay our annual fees each January but they don't send out a due
letter. With everything happening around the holidays, it's easy to
forget to pay."
Four years later, in October 2013, the Lopez family received a notice
from Bush Ross that the firm would be placing a lien on their property
unless they paid the disputed dues plus late fees, administrative fees
and interest a total of $785 within 30 days.
"We were stunned," Tina Lopez said. "We had all the records showing we
had sent in all of our dues. This didn't make sense."
It made sense to Cusack, the former association board member. In 2009,
she said, the association was in the process of changing management
companies over concerns about proper record keeping.
"Checks were lost; people weren't credited when they paid their dues,"
Two board members spent days going through the books, trying to find all
"Unfortunately, they didn't catch the mistake with Tina's check."
The Lopezes said they couldn't afford to pay $785. They were facing
expenses related to job layoffs, hospitalizations, and starting their
own cleaning company. Instead, they offered the proof that they had paid
year after year.
They didn't realize that all those payments after 2009 didn't go to
their annual dues but toward administrative and late fees imposed by
Bush Ross in connection with the disputed payment.
Bush Ross responded by filing a lawsuit on behalf of the homeowners
association board. By that time, the firm claimed the Lopezes owed
The couple offered to settle for the $785. In an April 2014 letter, Bush
Ross said the board denied the offer but would be willing to set up a
The Lopezes agreed and were making payments when they received the class
action notice from attorney Greenwald, accusing Bush Ross of violating
the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
Bush Ross attorney Charles Glausier declined to comment last month on
the Lopez case because the auction sale is still in court. Glausier said
Bush Ross only takes legal action with an association's blessing: "We
follow the direction of the board of directors."
A large part of the firm's practice is representing homeowners
associations, he said, perhaps hundreds of them.
Bush Ross has filed formal notice of liens with the Hillsborough County
Circuit Clerk against 72 homes in Rivercrest, a review of the clerk's
"Only 10 to 15 percent of these cases turn into foreclosures," Glausier
said. "It happened more often during the recession when almost every
association was having a rough time collecting fees. But you see it less
The first thing the Lopezes did when they received their $300 settlement
check was to stop making monthly payments to Bush Ross.
"We assumed since they settled, we didn't owe them anymore," Luis Lopez
That decision may cost them their home, said Tampa attorney Betty
Thomas, who took on the Lopez's case two weeks ago.
"I can see why they felt they shouldn't make payments to a law firm that
settled a lawsuit in which they were a party," Thomas said. "They
thought the lawsuit voided their settlement. But it was a mistake not to
continue with the settlement payments."
Once the payments stopped, Bush Ross filed a suit to foreclose.
"We tried to get in touch with them about the lawsuit but we were never
able to talk to anyone," said Luis Lopez, 53. "They say they got in
touch with us to settle but we never received anything by certified or
Glausier said his firm routinely provides property owners notice of any
action it takes, and Thomas acknowledged that there is evidence a copy
of the sale notice was sent to the Lopez's address.
"The odds are against them," Thomas said. "It's a lot tougher to win
these cases when a third party has already put up the funds to purchase
She added, "They usually put tenants in these homes and rent them out."
Current members of the homeowners association board did not respond to
requests for interviews. The management company for Rivercrest, Wise
Property Management, declined to comment.
Smith, the Lopez's neighbor, said he has had his own battles with the
homeowners' association during the 12 years he's lived in Rivercrest
most recently over weeds in his front garden.
"So we redid the entire garden over Mother's Day and sent the HOA
photos," Smith said. Still, Bush Ross notified him he'd racked up $1,000
in fines and attorney's fees.
"We ended up settling just to get them off our backs," he said.
Smith has sold his home in Rivercrest, saying, "I'll never again live in
a community with a homeowners association."
The Lopezes, meantime, are pleading with a judge to let them stay in
Rivercrest with their children Anthony, 16, and Jessica, 8.
When they bought the four-bedroom, three-bath, two-story home for
$270,000, the couple was moving to Riverview from a cramped apartment in
"We thought we were living the American dream," Luis Lopez said, "but
it's turned into a nightmare."