Article Courtesy of The Miami
By SCOTT ANDRON
Published March 22, 2008
At the Fountains of Tamarac, the condo association
has no insurance, a couple of unit owners are cutting the community's
grass themselves, and 90 percent of the unit owners aren't paying their
Even two banks, both of whom acquired their condos
out of foreclosure, haven't paid their dues.
Condo President Cesar Gonzalez views the start of
hurricane season with dread.
''We're hurting really bad,'' he said. "I don't
know if I can handle the stress.''
|The Fountains of Tamarac
is an extreme example of a growing problem in South Florida:
As the economy slumps and home prices fall, a growing number
of home- and condo owners are not paying their community
fees. That's creating enormous problems for their neighbors,
who must either pick up the slack by paying higher fees or
else live with reduced services.
Lewis Freeman, a Miami lawyer and
accountant who works with financially distressed properties,
said this problem is going to get worse.
''I think it's like hurricane
warnings,'' Freeman said. "They tell you to get ready a
couple months before. Get batteries and water. This is going
to absolutely be a catastrophe.''
some cases, overextended homeowners can't keep up with
mortgage and maintenance payments. In other cases, the issue
is investor-owned properties in which the owner finds the
unit worth less than the amount
the economy slumps and home prices fall, a growing number of home
and condo owners are not paying their community fees. That's
creating enormous problems for their neighbors, who must either pick
up the slack by paying higher fees or else live with reduced
so he just walks away from it. Both scenarios are contributing to record
widespread are such problems?
According to a recent Internet survey of 487 Florida
condo and homeowner associations by the Hollywood-based law firm of Becker
• 51 percent said
that mortgage foreclosures were creating a revenue shortfall and a burden on
the association's finances.
• 37 percent said
they have raised maintenance fees to cover the shortfall.
• 43 percent said
they have units that have been unoccupied for at least six months because of
And that's a small sampling. There are 7,149 condo
associations in Miami-Dade and Broward counties alone, according to the
Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
Kelly Ladwig, treasurer of the Townhouses of
Plantation, said her board recently doubled maintenance fees after taking
over the association from the developer, who converted it from rentals to
BATTLING THE BANKS
And even with the higher fees, the community may yet
have problems because so many people -- possibly as many as 50 percent --
haven't been paying.
''A lot of people bought here as investors, and they
were not able to sell. We now have a high foreclosure rate/nonpayment
rate,'' said Ladwig, whose day job is as a financial analyst for a
commercial real estate firm. "That's directly affecting the
Even if unit owners can find a buyer, Ladwig said,
some banks are looking at the association's books and refusing to make the
This could also block condo owners who try to
refinance their loans.
What's worse is the problem can snowball: The higher
maintenance fees can push even more unit owners into financial trouble,
leading to even more foreclosures.
''This is like an avalanche,'' said Jan Bergemann,
president of the Cyber Citizens for Justice, a statewide group of condo
owners. "More and more people don't pay their dues, forcing other
people to pay the cost. I don't know the solution.''
In some communities, the association has cut back
services, sometimes dramatically. For a while, no one was cutting the grass
at the Fountains of Tamarac, until a board member and another resident
started doing it, Gonzalez said. The association still doesn't have enough
money to insure the property.
At the Club at Brickell Bay, residents say they have
seen everything from nonworking elevators to broken equipment in the gym to
cutbacks in cable service. Here again, the problem is a large number of unit
owners not paying their dues that cover these services.
It's a problem Lori Rice said she has tackled
aggressively since taking over as property manager in December. Now, she
says, about 60 percent of unit owners are up to date on their condo fees,
and she is working on getting that number higher.
For instance, she says she now has 200 unit owners
paying their maintenance automatically from their bank accounts, up from 13
last year. She has been seeking payment from the banks -- who own 57 of the
643 units. And she has renegotiated the cable contract and brought the
association up to date on other bills.
That has enabled her to fix problems and make needed
improvements, like painting the hallways.
''All the elevators are working for the first time in
over a year,'' Rice said. "I'm cleaning up a mountain of messes here,
but I'm seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.''
Donna Berger, an attorney with the Fort Lauderdale law
firm of Katzman Garfinkel, said she advises associations to budget for a
certain amount of bad debt. She suggests that board members review the
number of delinquencies they've seen in the last few months, and plan on
having at least that percentage in the months to come. Katzman Garfinkel
represents about 1,000 condo and homeowner associations.
If a unit owner keeps refusing to pay condo fees,
associations have the power to foreclose on the property -- even if the
owner is paying the mortgage. The goal of a foreclosure is to recover the
money owed by selling the property.
BANKS FIRST IN LINE
The trouble is, even if the association starts the
foreclosure, the bank still gets paid first. If the owner owed more than the
property is worth, the association could be out of luck. And under Florida
law, the bank can't be forced to pay more than six months of condo fees or 1
percent of the mortgage amount, whichever is less -- until the bank takes
Meanwhile, banks are overwhelmed with foreclosures
right now, and the six-month cap gives them little incentive to hurry up.
Bergemann, from the Cyber Citizens group, said he
thinks lawyers are too quick to go to foreclosure, which can cost thousands
of dollars per case for associations. He suggests board members first try to
work out a deal with delinquent unit owners.
That may not work, however, especially if the unit
owner was an investor who has walked away from the property.
In those cases, ''let the bank foreclose,'' Bergemann
said. "It saves the association from paying the attorneys.''
The trouble with foreclosures comes at a particularly
difficult time for condo associations, many of whom were financially
weakened by repairs from Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
Between the state's skyrocketing insurance costs, the
costs of Wilma cleanup and now the foreclosure crisis, Florida's condo
associations are facing a ''perfect storm,'' said Danille Carroll, the state
Lewis, the lawyer and accountant, agreed. He said his
firm, which serves, for example, as bankruptcy trustees, will likely profit.
''Nobody ever saw this coming,'' he said. "You
look at what's going to happen with these things: utter chaos.''