Condo board complaints rise dramatically in 5 years

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Joe Kollin

Published October 17, 2007

 

 The number of complaints against condo boards has gone up dramatically in the past five years.

Figures compiled by the state Division of Florida Land Sales, Condominiums & Mobile Homes show condo owners filed 2,682 complaints against their boards as of June 30, compared to 1,413 complaints filed in the year ending June 30, 2002.

"Although we don't track the reasons people file complaints, experience tells us that the increased number of unit owners, coupled with a spike in complaints in the wake of the storm years in '03-'05, generated the increases," said Alexis Antonacci, press secretary for the division's parent agency, the Department of Business & Professional Regulation.

Hurricane-related complaints included repairs not made fast enough, no repairs at all, no repairs because of insurance issues and complaints related to increased assessments resulting from higher association insurance costs.

Also, Antonacci said, the number of condo units statewide increased 295,262 since 2003. That's more people to complain and more boards to complain about.

Other experts attribute the spike to more violations committed by boards and more awareness by owners that they can file complaints. Making owners aware during the past few years have been state condo Ombudsman Danille R. Carroll's office, classes her staff teaches in Broward County and classes provided statewide by the division.

Although the state collected $153,542.80 in fines during the past year and $188,799.80 the previous year, most complaints don't result in fines. Only 42 cases closed during the past year resulted in fines; 43 the previous year.

The low number of associations fined is why many owners call the division a toothless tiger. But Director Michael T. Cochran said state law requires him to give boards a chance to first correct a violation.

"The Legislature recognized in the 1990s that boards are volunteers, that they are elected from among unit owners, so it set up an enforcement regimen that recognizes you're dealing with novices, not MBAs," he said.

The law also requires the division to fine associations, not just directors. Attempts to change the law regularly fail in Tallahassee. If directors knew they could be personally fined, experts told lawmakers, few owners would volunteer.

Owners do have recourse.

"If your directors are incompetent, you elect a new board," Cochran said.

In the past, some boards wouldn't tell owners about the fines, which they paid from the association treasuries. So the division now makes sure every owner gets the word.

The division makes education the basis of its three-strikes-and-you're-out policy. First it sends letters to boards advising them of their errors. If boards commit the same violations within two years, they get warning letters. The third strike is a fine.

If directors are involved in violations of criminal law, police departments are involved. That's happening in two cases in Broward County, and it shows "that the system works," Cochran said.


Q&A.

Q. The Exercise Club at a Boca Raton-area condo needs more space in the clubhouse, so the board plans to have it swap rooms with the Pool Club. By switching, however, the Pool Club won't have space for one of its two pool tables and players would be forced to use shorter cue sticks. Pool players checked the law and found boards can make changes to recreational facilities without the consent of the owners. Another part of the law, however, says boards can't make material alterations to common elements unless 75 percent of owners approve. Which is it, they want to know.

A. Paul D. Eichner of Bakalar & Eichner in Plantation said that "generally speaking, the board of directors has the authority to designate the use of rooms that are in the common area of a condominium to meet the changing needs of residents." The association's individual documents, however, "would govern in such instances." As far as material alterations, he said a court has defined it as "to palpably or perceptively vary or change the form, shape, elements or specifications of a building from its original design or plan, or existing condition, in such a manner as to appreciably affect or influence its function, use or appearance." So that wouldn't apply.


Q. Where can I go with my complaint? Where can I or get more information?

A. Here are some contacts:

State condo ombudsman: ombudsman@dbpr.state.fl.us ; 954-202-3234; 850-922-7671 (not toll free); www.myflorida.com/condos . The ombudsman's office answers questions for unit owners, tries to mediate disputes between owners and boards, monitors elections and educates owners.

Division of Florida Land Sales, Condominiums & Mobile Homes: 954-202-3982; 800-226-9101; www.state.fl.us/dbpr/lsc/condominiums/index.shtml . The division enforces state condo law.

State condo law: www.flsenate.gov/Statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&URL=Ch0718/ch0718.htm 

State homeowner association law: www.flsenate.gov/Statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&URL=Ch0720/ch0720.htm 

Cyber Citizens for Justice, a nonprofit representing Florida condo and homeowner association unit owners: www.ccfj.net .

Community Associations Leadership Lobby, an organization that represents boards and those who manage and advise associations: www.callbp.com .

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