Lawsuit over age restriction rules forces Florida homeowner out


Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

By Drew Harwell

Published January 6, 2010

CLEARWATER ó When the health of Regina Eschenfelder's father began to weaken, she and her 5-year-old daughter, Nicole, spent nights helping her parents at their home in Pinellas Park.

One problem ó the Eschenfelders' neighborhood doesn't allow residents younger than 55. The Mainlands of Tamarac by the Gulf homeowners association sued the family in 2007.

Patricia Eschenfelder, 63, fought the eviction for two years before deciding to leave. In October, two months after the death of her husband, she moved into a Clearwater duplex believing she could leave the trouble behind.

But the legal battle continues, and her costs are still climbing. Eschenfelder pays more than $600 a month as she waits for the vacant home to sell. The association that intended to evict Eschenfelder charges her monthly for a share of the neighborhood's water and $183 in dues.

Those payments, she said, eat up more than half of her $1,230 in Social Security. If the lawsuit ends in the association's favor, she'll be responsible for nearly three years of legal fees.

"I feel like I'm a criminal, and I didn't do anything wrong," Eschenfelder said. "I'm just an old lady trying to keep things going."

Regina Eschenfelder, left, lost her job and her dadís health faltered, so she and daughter Nicole began overnighting with her mom, Patricia, in a Pinellas Park age-restricted community.

Attorneys argue the association must abide by its provisions or risk losing the authority to do so.

"The association's duty is to enforce the rules. They can't just decide not to," said Gary Schaaf, who represents the Mainlands. "If they don't enforce it in one case, they're not going to be able to enforce it in another case."

Eschenfelder's attorney, her son Robert, argues that his sister stayed with their parents only to aid her ailing father.

"The association had the duty, under the Fair Housing Act, to make that accommodation," he said.

A judge denied a motion for summary judgment Monday. A hearing for the case is pending.

Robert Whitfield, the Mainlands' property manager, declined comment.

Eschenfelder said she will continue to support Nicole and Regina, who is trained as a certified nursing assistant, as she looks for work. No one has submitted offers to buy the home, which she bought in 1996 and listed at $115,000. Eschenfelder said she can no longer afford the monthly Mainlands payments and fears it may soon be foreclosed.

"I'm just so over it," Eschenfelder said. "Why can't people just let things go?"