Associations Profitable For Lawyers, Property Managers

Article Courtesy of The Tampa Tribune

By Julie Pace
Posted on Sunday, June 18, 2006

TAMPA - Where there is growth, there is likely someone trying to make a profit.

The booming homeowner association market is no exception. There are lawyers who represent homeowners and associations in disputes, property managers who enforce deed restrictions, and lobbyists who travel to Tallahassee each spring, trying to influence the laws that govern communities.

Although some homeowner advocates say the powerful legal and management industries are only looking out for their own interests, association supporters say communities couldn't function without these power players.

With more than 1,000 homeowner associations in the Tampa Bay area, there is plenty of work - and money - to go around.

Homeowner association attorneys command $200 hourly fees for work such as writing community documents and negotiating foreclosure cases. When lawyers get involved, a fine that could have cost a resident $100 can lead to thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Those cases are the exception, not the rule, said Ellen Hirsch de Haan, one of the 30 lawyers representing the Becker & Poliakoff firm's 5,000 community association clients.

Association law is profitable, but de Haan said the $150,000 to $300,000 salaries are much lower than the money that can be made in specialties such as medical malpractice and workers' compensation.

"You can certainly make a good living," she said. "You can also work nights, and you can work weekends."

Although most homeowners will never deal with their association's attorney, many will get to know the property manager.

In large deed-restricted communities such as Westchase and Hunter's Green, those managers work on-site, coordinating maintenance of common areas and canvassing the neighborhood looking for homeowners violating restrictions.

When association-run communities started growing in the 1980s, so did the management industry, said Mark Benson, president of Florida property management company, Benson's Inc.

Community managers don't rake in high salaries - most average between $25,000 and $50,000 a year - but the management companies are profitable, Benson said.

Companies charge based on the number of units in a community. Average annual charges cost communities about $240 per unit. That means a 2,000-unit community pays about $480,000 a year to retain a management company.

Benson's Inc. manages 80 associations, but Benson would not disclose his company's profits.

Many of the state's high-profile association lawyers and managers are part of lobbying groups trying to get lawmakers to protect their interests.

Among them are the Florida Community Association Managers Alliance, Community Associations Institute and the Community Association Leadership Lobby.

Many lobbying groups say they also represent the interests of the homeowners. Homeowner rights lobbyist Jan Bergemann said, however, that as long as lawyers and managers who profit off the industry are involved, money always will trump homeowner rights.

"There's a big incentive," he said.

Bergemann's organization, Cyber Citizens for Justice, is lobbying for more state oversight of homeowner associations. It's a hard fight, Bergemann said, because the opposing lobbyists are more organized, and better funded than homeowners.

"None of the players really see the reason to change the problems," he said.

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