Woman pushes for state panel to regulate homeowner associations

Article Courtesy of the Sun-Sentinel
By Patty Pensa 
Posted November 19, 2003 

Something struck Barbara Katz when she moved into her first homeowner association community: If ever a problem came up, there would be nowhere to turn except a lawyer's office.

"There are rules and regulations you have to follow. That's what keeps things from being chaotic," said Katz, who lives west of Boynton Beach. "But there's nowhere for a homeowner to go. There's no homeowner association bureau."

Now, Katz is serving on a state task force expected to recommend the creation of such an agency. Gov. Jeb Bush commissioned the 15-member task force to improve relations between homeowners and their associations at a time when the number of homeowner associations -- and complaints against them -- is growing.

More than 5 million Floridians live in homeowner-association communities, and that number is expected to grow by about 3 million in the next seven years, said Jan Bergemann, task force member and president of the advocacy group Cyber Citizens for Justice.

"For many people, including us, it's a whole new world," Katz said of HOAs.

When Katz and her husband moved from Long Island, N.Y., three years ago, they pored over their homeowner association documents. Katz was interested in how things work and soon became the first president of her community's master association.

While homeowner association conflicts tend to make the community's board or developer the bad guy, Katz said she wants the task force to be fair to everyone. The board, developers and homeowners all must be accountable, Katz said, and she wants to push that idea through the governor's task force.

But first, Katz said, it's important to make sure that creating a homeowner association bureau is even allowed. She said Florida Statute 720 -- a 14-page document governing homeowner associations -- must be amended.

The Legislature, through the statute, says it's not in the best interest of homeowners or their associations to create or impose a state agency to regulate their affairs.

"The first thing you have to do is get rid of those words," said Katz, first vice president of Coalition of Boynton West Residential Associations, a community group. "Every time I hear it I think, 'That's terrible.' How can you recommend something that you cannot do?"

The task force includes attorneys, a consumer advocate and a real estate agent. It has had three of its six scheduled meetings, and expects to make its recommendation after its final meeting in January, said Meg Shannon, spokeswoman for the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which is heading the task force.

Katz said the meetings aren't focusing on conflicts that generate the most controversy, such as disputes about how to fly the American flag, the weight of a resident's dog or allowable house colors. More troublesome, Katz said, are stories about associations conducting elections without telling the homeowners, or recalled board members who refuse to step down.

"We want accountability of the boards," said Bergemann, of St. Augustine.

Condominium owners -- who have a 90-page state document governing their communities -- pay $4 a year toward arbitrating complaints through the state. Bergemann wants the same for homeowners so the state can run a similar department for homeowner-association complaints.

"We want a strong agency with enforcement power and to educate," Bergemann said. "It should not be done by attorneys pitting homeowner against homeowner."