Condo mold cleanup can be complicated one Adventure owner learns

Article Courtesy of Miami Herald

By ANA VECIANA-SUAREZ
Posted October 9, 2005

Joyce Starr first noticed the mold on her condominium corridor's ceilings in February 2004, when a contractor pointed it out. Concerned about her health, Starr wanted it removed promptly. She immediately notified board president Marilyn Krisberg, who, in turn, told the property manager. But almost 20 months, several reports and a flurry of letters and accusations later, the mold at the Bonavida Condominiums in Aventura is still snaking its way along the corridors. And Starr complains of a chronic sore throat.

Both Krisberg and Starr, who is also on the condo board, agree the 144-unit building, built in the 1970s, has mold that needs to be cleaned up. But how to handle it and the pace of remediation are hotly contested points in a bitter dispute.

''It's been 20 months and the toxic mold is still growing along the ceilings,'' Starr fumes. ''There have been repeated delays and excuses.''

From Krisberg: ''No one is denying what should be done. We know we have a mold problem, and, yes, it's taken a long time. I'll grant you that, but it's very complicated.''

Bonavida's problem is emblematic of the struggle condo owners face when trying to rid their buildings of mold. Unlike private homeowners who decide -- and pay -- on their own, a board must go through several steps before it hires anyone. What's more, if the problem is big enough, the board also must levy a special assessment, never a popular move.

Bonavida's attempts to remove the mold have also been delayed for many reasons. After Starr's initial report, the property manager sent a maintenance worker to clean and paint the ceiling in question. ''At first we thought it was dirt,'' Krisberg explains. Starr, on the other hand, counters that the mold looked very obviously like . . . well, like mold.

By November 2004 the condo board had received an engineering report documenting the water damage and the spread of the fungus. The report also recommended that experienced mold remediators be hired. Getting bids for the removal work took several more months. Krisberg says the magnitude of the job and differing opinions on how to do it slowed the process.

But Starr doesn't buy that. She claims that Krisberg has delayed working on the mold remediation because Krisberg wants to fold in a special assessment for balcony renovation with the assessment for the mold. The balcony expense is about $1 million, the mold about $250,000.

''It's a matter of bookkeeping,'' Krisberg says. ''We don't want different assessments. It's easier that way.''

Frustrated, Starr brought in a health inspector to do a walk-through and contacted the state condo ombudsman, the Aventura police and State Rep. Julio Robaina. This past June, she also testified before the Governor's Advisory Council on Condominiums, questioning the accountability and practices of her condo board. The mold is still there.

''A year and a half has gone by since the mold was first detected,'' she told the council. ''If and when action is finally taken, I fear that the mold remediation will be done shoddily.''

State condo ombudsman Virgil Rizzo says condo boards must solve mold problems -- as well as other maintenance issues -- in ''a reasonable amount of time,'' according to Florida law. But there is no definition of reasonable. In the Bonavida case, Rizzo sent a letter to Krisberg and the board in March, and the board later replied, through its law firm, enclosing three bids for remediation.

Bonavida's internal struggle with its mold problem is not unusual. ''I get a lot of complaints about mold,'' Rizzo says. ''Especially from around Central Florida since the hurricanes.''

What can you do if faced with the same problem? Here are some steps you can take to remedy the situation, suggested by Rizzo and Jan Bergemann, who co-founded Cyber Citizens for Justice, a statewide group that serves as a clearinghouse for condo unit owners:

 Send a certified return receipt letter to the board of directors of your condo and/or to the registered agent of the association. Don't know who the registered agent is? Just go to www.sunbiz.org. Under popular links, click on online search, then click on corporations, then click on name list. Type in the name of your condo association. When you check on to the appropriate name, the registered agent will pop through.

The letter should clearly describe the problem and its location. Request a response within 30 days, as allowed by Florida law.

''The idea is to start a paper trail,'' says Bergemann, who gets about 100 complaints from condo owners a day.

 If the condo board does not answer or there is some disagreement about the timetable for remediation, Rizzo says a unit owner can sue to force the association into action. The likelihood, however, is that most won't. They'd actually be suing themselves, since every owner is technically part of the association.

You can also contact Rizzo at 850-922-7671 or virgil.rizzo@dbpr.state.fl.us

 File a complaint against the board through the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which regulates condo and homeowner associations. Complaint forms can be found at http://www.state.fl.us/dbpr/lsc/condominiums/forms/complaint.pdf

If you prefer snail mail, write to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, 1940 N. Monroe St., Tallahassee, FL, 32399, attn: Division of Land Sales, Condominiums and Mobile Homes

 Keep abreast of condo issues by regularly checking several websites, including www.ccfj.net (Cyber Citizens for Justice) and www.condomediation.com (a collection of useful resources.)

 Write Robaina at julio.robaina@myfloridahouse.gov or at his office: 6741 SW 24th St., Suite 19, Miami, FL, 33155. Robaina was instrumental in helping pass a law creating the condo ombudsman and the Condominium Advisory Council.

In the end, however, be prepared for a drawn-out process that may have no resolution. Neither Rizzo nor the Department of Business and Professional Regulation has enforcement power. ''They only have advisory power,'' Bergemann says, ''and that's not much.''

OMBUDSMAN

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