Couple pass on condo wisdom as part of statewide effort

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald

By Donna Gehrke-White

Published February 3, 2011


With the help of his wife, Bill Raphan of Tamarac aims to educate people about condo practices and laws while overseeing the Broward branch of the state Condo Ombudsman’s Office.

Bill Raphan would be the first to say it: Condo living can be hard. Just having so many neighbors can be tough.

It has gotten even worse.

The foreclosure crisis has added financial problems to the usual personality conflicts and condo commando battles.

Raphan sees – and hears – the complaints every day as head of the Broward operations of the Florida Condo Ombudsman’s Office.

His office at 1400 W. Commercial Blvd. fields about 14,000 calls a year, mostly from South Florida residents. It is the condo ombudsman’s only office outside Tallahassee. Complaints abound about some condo associations raising monthly maintenance fees or passing special assessments to cover owners who are not paying and may even be in foreclosure.

“I would say a good percentage of condos are having problems," Raphan said.

Still, Raphan is not ready to give up on Broward condo living.

He and his wife Susan, who helps him in the ombudsman’s office, own a Tamarac condo. They moved here from New York after running a catering business. The idea was to retire early and enjoy days of sun-and-fun.

That was before Raphan got on his condo board, served as president, then volunteered to help start the condo ombudsman’s office. The state Legislature set up the office in 2004 to oversee elections, mediate disputes and run classes to educate condo owners and association leaders. Raphan soon became immersed in all three areas – plus helping answer an average of 38 calls a day, 365 days a week. He and his wife Susan ended up working full time.

Susan tries to pass along a pragmatic approach to condo dwellers who can become angry over issues, from a noisy upstairs neighbor to an unexpected assessment. Cool the emotion, she recommends. “A condo is a business,’’ she tells upset condo owners. “You are the shareholder.’’

That detached emotion has helped her and her husband run strong, leading the ombudsman’s office in Broward while also teaching about condo law and finance at association meetings and at Broward and Palm Beach colleges. These classes -- for both condo dwellers and association leaders alike --have been among the best reforms the condo ombudsman’s office has brought, Bill Raphan said.

“I think people want some accountability in their leaders," he said. “It is not enough for them to say ‘Gee, I didn’t know that.’ That is not good enough.’’

Many say that condo association officers are becoming more educated and are better able to lead their communities. They credit the Raphans.

“Bill gives excellent classes,’’ said Jan Bergemann, a grassroots activist who started Cyber Citizens for Justice, a Florida-based website that focuses on condo and homeowner’s association issues.

Bergemann, however, thinks the condo ombudman’s office could do more, such as advocating for owners. But Colleen Donahue, the interim Ombudsman who is based in Tallahassee, said her agency cannot act for owners.

“Our office is not to be an advocate, but to be a neutral source,’’ she said.

Still, the Raphans will try to help homeowners. Susan Raphan said she phones condo boards to alert them of problems. “We can’t force them to do anything,’’ she said. But many boards will try to resolve issues, she said. That helps condo owners – and their ombudsman boss appreciates the Raphans’ efforts, which can include extensive travel.

They are “doing an excellent job down there," said Donahue.

“I am a huge fan," agreed Donna D. Berger, a condo and homeowner’s association attorney who is executive director of the Community Advocacy Network. She praised Bill Raphan for his ability to get so much done with a small staff that includes his wife and part-timers.

“His heart is in the right place and he understands the daily issues with which condominium owners and directors must contend,’’ Berger said. “Right now he is understaffed, underfunded and yet, he and his staff still try to do the best they can to make a difference in these owners’ lives. He has embarked on a very ambitious educational program and his energy seems boundless."

Recently, the Raphans were teaching about condo law to about three dozen condo dwellers at a Broward College seminar at the north campus. Most did not know that the Legislature passed a law ousting any condo board member who is more than 90 days delinquent on paying. “It is automatic," Bill Raphan said.

He also told the class that boards should use discretion – and common sense -- in passing rules. One board went overboard, he said, in banning children from a condo complex for more than six hours a day. Some board members had become upset that an owner was caring for a child, but they agreed to rescind the new law after the Raphans called.

Condo living is an adjustment, the Raphans said.

“I have a noise complaint," said seminar attendee Denise Bednarek.

“Welcome to the club," Bill Raphan said, adding that noisy neighbors is one of the most common complaints.

Right now, the Raphans are swamped with answering calls about condo board elections and budgets.

This is the time of the year when most annual meetings are held, and budgets are set for a new year. Many people still need to learn about the importance of setting reserve funds to help pay for expensive projects such as roof replacements, Susan Raphan said.

Complicating matters: Many condo associations have had to pass special assessments or raise monthly maintenance fees to offset foreclosures in their complex. Some also have to contend with owners who quit paying both their condo mortgage and association dues. Those who continue paying often have to pay more.

He agrees with the paying residents that it is not fair they have to take on an extra burden. But he said the associations have to raise money to pay for basic service like water and electricity.

If they don’t, they can put condos in dire straits. Some associations can’t even afford to hire property managers.

People just need to remember the importance of home, sweet home, Susan Raphan said.

Plus, her husband said, “this crisis won’t go on forever."