Home, sour home
The homeowners' associations were supposed to revive two depressed communities. But residents say all they got were foreclosure threats and potholes.
Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald
By DONNA GEHRKE-WHITE
Published April 29, 2007
Restarting two homeowners' associations was supposed to rescue hundreds of families battling blight and crime in north Miami-Dade.
The two townhome communities of Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde would sparkle with street lights, clean roads and new landscaping. Homes would jump in value with buyers drawn to the cleaned-up neighborhoods.
That didn't happen.
''They do absolutely nothing,'' Vista Verde homeowner Patsy Bentle-Hall complained, noting the cracked sidewalks, broken mailboxes and weedy common areas. ``They're bleeding us to death.''
The homeowners complain that, while Florida law allows homeowner associations to foreclose for as little as one missed payment, the state provides no help to residents with complaints about how their associations manage their money.
Nearly 40 percent of the 513 homeowners have faced legal action over $35-a-month association fees that could take away their homes.
''The people have gotten away with murder because we are poor and helpless. There is nobody that responds to us,'' said Miramar Gardens homeowner Ethel Clarke, 76, who had to borrow from her children to pay $2,667 in dues, late fees and legal costs to save her home.
Vista Verde HOA President Nathaniel G. Miller, a soft-spoken Baptist church trustee, blames any problems on those who won't pay their dues. The HOAs, he says, have been effective in cutting once-rampant crime.
EVEN WORSE BEFORE
''It might look bad now but it looks like heaven compared to what it was,'' Miller added. He says most complaints come from Miramar Gardens and not his association.
Miramar Gardens President Claudette Brinson defended her HOA but declined to talk further.
The Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde homeowners associations have churned out 204 liens in three years -- billing owners $225,802 for unpaid dues, $91,400 for attorney fees and $10,646 for court costs, court records show. Some homeowners have declared bankruptcy to save their homes from being sold on the courthouse steps. Others have taken out second mortgages.
''This is worse than stealing government money meant to help the poor: This is allowing attorneys to steal the money from poor people and to force them to lose their homes,'' said Jack Arias, an advocate for low-income housing who has bought and rehabbed several homes in the two depressed neighborhoods.
''If this were a middle-class neighborhood in South Florida, the National Guard would have been called in by now,'' said attorney Leonardo G. Renaud, who has filed a lawsuit against the Miramar Gardens HOA, Timberlake Management and the nonprofit Universal Truth Community Development Corp., alleging negligence in the abandoned drainage work. The suit is pending.
Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde are nestled between Northwest 37th and 47th avenues just north of 205th Street in what is now Miami Gardens. The homes are mostly one-story townhomes built in the 1970s along cul-de-sacs.
Homes sell for less than half of the median home price in Miami-Dade, from as low as $93,000 for a three-bedroom, one-bath home to $160,000 for a four-two.
Many of the units are owned by investors and rented to tenants. Few of the resident owners have much education, and many don't speak English well.
Unlike most communities with homeowners associations, Vista Verde and Miramar Gardens have no pools, no clubhouses and no common amenities. The homeowners associations exist to maintain the streets, pay for electricity for the street lights and maintain several strips of common area.
For this, homeowners are charged $35 per month. Less than half of that goes for actual services, such as electricity and mowing. The rest goes to management fees, legal fees and other administrative costs.
A decade ago, the two communities had become eyesores, plagued with shootings, drug dealing and abandoned houses. A nearby church, Universal Truth Center, suggested restarting the lapsed HOAs to clean up the area. In 1998, the county, which owned 21 abandoned homes in the neighborhood, persuaded Judge Stuart Simons to restart the HOAs. He appointed a receiver and named a property manager, Timberlake Management.
At first, the future looked bright. The county spent $1.626 million to rehab its vacant homes and provided $343,991.35 for a ''loan'' to get the HOAs restarted, a debt that was later forgiven. The county also gave $1.16 million to the Universal Life's community development corporation for the drainage work.
To fund the new associations, the receiver assessed each home $500, in $35 monthly installments. Once the $500 was paid, the $35-per-month fee stayed, even when the receiver turned the HOAs over to boards in 2000.
Like many associations, the Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde groups contract with a professional management company to collect fees and organize the day-to-day maintenance of the communities.
The choice of management company is up to the HOA boards, and they have kept the same company appointed by the receiver, Timberlake Management of Doral, run by Robert Dugger and his wife, Rachel Dugger.
Disgruntled homeowners said Timberlake keeps poor records, controls the elections and isn't responsive to homeowners' concerns. Plus, the company has failed to maintain the communities, they said.
Clark says that even after she paid, she got a letter from the HOA attorney threatening legal action over unpaid dues. Juan Sousa of Vista Verde had his townhouse sold out from under him on the courthouse steps -- without ever being notified that he owed back dues. (He retained an attorney, paid the back dues and got it back.)
Investor Arias said that when he complained about an abandoned house near his rental property, Robert Dugger told him to board it up himself.
Dugger says he has improved the communities and says the large number of foreclosure actions is necessary to ensure that all homeowners pay their fair share.
''The community is a thousand times better than it was when I saw it in 1997,'' he said. He said there hasn't been enough money to repave the streets.
Homeowner and condo association managers are
licensed by the state, and the Vista Verde and Miramar Gardens owners have complained to the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation about Dugger.
In 2001, the state fined Dugger $500 and assessed $569.29 in administrative costs after a homeowner in another association complained of not having access to HOA records. Dugger denied the charges, but said his attorney advised him to pay rather than fight.
The complaints intensified in 2003, after Gov. Jeb Bush removed Dugger as a North Bay Village commissioner when he was indicted for failing to disclose loans he had received from a property owner whose business he voted in favor of as a commissioner. Dugger pleaded no contest in 2005 to two second-degree misdemeanor counts of conflict of interest and failure to comply with financial disclosure requirements.
In 2006, the state moved to yank Dugger's property management license, but Dugger protested and hired an attorney. The agency is now negotiating a settlement, which is confidential until both sides agree, says DBPR spokeswoman Alexis Antonacci.
Dugger's wife Rachel successfully fought DBPR'S attempt to deny her a license, Antonacci says, which means that Timberlake could continue in the management business even if Robert Dugger's license were to be revoked.
Among the most active of the dissident homeowners has been Miramar Gardens' Taimira Perez, 44, a scrappy single mom with a ninth-grade education. For nine years, she has refused to pay the $35-a-month dues. She also has filed numerous complaints to DBPR against Dugger.
''The system is so screwed up, totally messed up,'' she said. "If the county and state departments had done their jobs, this would not have gone as far.''
In 2001 the Miramar Gardens association moved to foreclose on her townhome. With the help of a pro bono attorney, she staved off foreclosure by filing for bankruptcy. But in 2004, the association reopened the case.
Acting as her own attorney, Perez maintained that the management company, rather than the board, was running the HOA. She also argued that the $35-per-month fee had not been approved by the membership, as required in the HOA documents.
In January 2006, Judge Linda Singer Stein agreed with her, stopping the foreclosure. Stein declared the Miramar Gardens HOA a ''sham'' organization with ''unclean hands'' that had held elections ''with many irregularities and inconsistencies.'' She agreed with Perez that the $35-a-month fee -- the fee over which many homeowners have been threatened with foreclosure -- had not been legally adopted.
The judge did order Perez and her former husband, Orlando Luis Leiva, to pay $1,610 to the association for the $500 special assessment approved by the court when the associations were in receivership. After the HOA attorney asked the court to assess Perez $25,000 for its legal fees, Stein ordered her to pay $5,028.75 for her HOA's legal fees and $1,888 in costs in collecting the $1,610.
Still, Perez considers that a victory. Other homeowners are citing Stein's decision that the $35 fee was not legally adopted in fighting their own foreclosures.
Perez has gotten help in learning how to research the law from another Miramar Gardens owner, George Walker, who is a building contractor.
Walker bought a foreclosed Miramar Gardens townhouse in 2004 from the county for $10,000 to renovate and resell. He rehabbed the house and put it on the market for $100,000. Just as he was about to sell, he was hit with a lien for the previous owner's back-due fees.
''But I didn't have to pay that -- not if I bought it at the courthouse steps,'' he says. Acting as his own attorney, he took the case to court and a judge agreed with him.
The lien derailed the sale of the townhouse, and Walker moved in. He turned one of his bedrooms into an office, where he began filing legal motions in all capital letters from an old manual typewriter that is stuck in upper case.
Walker encouraged his neighbors to withhold their fees and fight the foreclosures in court and distributed leaflets in both Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde.
He turned the townhouse into a billboard, covering it with charges against the lawyers, management company and associations.
LEGAL HOT WATER
His activism has gotten him into legal hot water. Late last year, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ronald Friedman, at the urging of the Vista Verde HOA, ordered Walker not to pass out anti-association leaflets in a community he didn't live in. The judge threatened to arrest Walker and jail him for six months if he passes out leaflets there again.
''That's a violation of my First Amendment to have free speech,'' Walker contends. "Are they going to deny the Jehovah's Witnesses from passing out their material?''
Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde are now in the new city of Miami Gardens, which may finally give the residents some help.
The city is willing to take over the private roads and provide street lighting -- if the homeowners associations consent. The county has pledged to finish the drainage project.
''Some [roads] look like they are in a Third World country,'' said Daniel Rosemond, director of Miami Gardens' Department of Community Development. "It's really sad to know that so many people have been living under such conditions for a long time.''
But, he told homeowners, the city doesn't want to get involved in their HOA fight.
The only way homeowners can bring about change is to elect a new board, either by recalling the current board or waiting until the next election in June. That isn't easy, say some residents, because Dugger controls the elections, a charge he denies.
Many owners fear signing a recall ballot, says Felix Simpkins, who filed for bankruptcy to avoid losing his home to Miramar Gardens HOA foreclosure.
''People are so afraid if they do anything they will get a lien out of nowhere,'' he says.