Article Courtesy of The Miami
By MONICA HATCHER
Published January 4, 2009
Working for the state's Office of the
Condominium Ombudsman is dirty, sometimes even ''disgusting,'' work, say
Bill and Susan Raphan, who supervise the Fort Lauderdale satellite office.
The tempers, the misunderstandings, the
complaining -- the slapping, the threats and, at least once, the
brandishing of a firearm.
|''You would not believe
some of the things we see,'' said Susan Raphan, who with
her husband began working, first as volunteers, for the
office soon after the Florida Legislature created it in
Despite the job's tribulations, the
Raphans said they know that more than 1.5 million condo
owners in Florida depend on them as a resource for
understanding the rights and responsibilities that come
with condo living. And they find satisfaction in helping
people. Of the 16,000 phone calls the office got last
year, Bill Raphan said roughly 90 percent were from
Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties and handled by
Fort Lauderdale's staff of seven.
Their primary duties include acting
as mediator between boards and angry owners, holding
classes and seminars about condo law, and monitoring
elections. But as the South Florida real estate market
enters another year of soaring foreclosures and sinking
home values, the Raphans expect a host of new problems
they do not have the power to remedy -- condo associations
entering bankruptcy, buildings closing and unit owners
walking away from their long-held investments because they
can't afford to carry the cost of empty units.
reason: unpaid maintenance fees.
Bill and Susan Raphan
a major problem,'' Bill Raphan said.
The Miami Herald sat down with Bill Raphan
to discuss the issues facing condo dwellers.
Q: What are the biggest
issues facing condo owners right now?
A: The condominium market,
the problems in foreclosures, obviously, liens and delinquencies are a big
problem right now. That's the biggest problem at this point, and it's up
to the government to try to help us. There's not a lot our office can do.
This is a national problem that is happening everywhere, but we have so
many condominiums here. It's just more acute in this area.
Q: What kind of complaints
have you been fielding?
A: People are complaining
about foreclosures and their maintenance fees. I always explain it to them
this way: Your condominium has to run like a business, and the business
has to collect enough income to run the business, in this case, the
association or the condominium itself. In order to maintain the property,
you have to take in X amount of money. [The total amount needed] is like a
big pie, and each person has a slice of that pie that they have to pay.
So, for every person in your condo [who] is not paying, it means the slice
of your pie gets bigger. In other words, if you're paying $100 a month and
some people aren't paying, you might have to pay $110 or $120. You might
have to pay $200, and there are places with 50 percent or more
delinquencies. That means if you are paying $100 a month, you're going to
pay $200 to keep that place going. People can't afford that nowadays.
People are losing their jobs.
Q: What are condos doing
to deal with the problem of budget shortages?
A: Some condominiums have
actually eliminated their maintenance people, and they are cleaning up and
doing things themselves. They've eliminated their landscapers and are
cutting lawns. They've cut down as best they can on things they buy. The
situation is very difficult. The people who are getting assessed that
extra money are angry. They want something done, but there is not a lot
that can be done.
What about accusations that lenders are stalling foreclosures to avoid
paying maintenance and association fees? Is there any truth to that
A: [Lenders] are not going
to say they are stalling, but what condo owners are complaining about is a
Florida statute that gives lenders a cap that says they don't have to pay
more than six months of assessments or 1 percent of the value of the unit
[before they foreclose on it. Then they must pay full association fees
like other unit owners.] That's one of the things [Florida legislators]
may be looking to change this year.
Q: Do you think there is a
solution to getting lenders to pony up their share of maintenance fees?
A: It has to be
legislative on any level, maybe even up to the federal government, who
knows? It's a major thing. This is something that needs to be looked at on
even a national level.
Q: What are the
consequences of association-fee problems going unaddressed?
A: I know of several
condominiums that are on the brink of people just walking out. They can't
afford to maintain their units anymore. Their slice of the pie has become
so big that they can't afford it. They are just packing up and leaving
their largest investment because it doesn't pay for them to stay. You are
going to be hearing about this very soon. This is going to be a real
Q: So unit owners who've
been in their condos for many years, who have equity in their condos and
even may have paid off their mortgages, are still having to move because
they can't afford maintenance fees?
A: Yes, and some condos
can't take in even enough money to pay their water bills. They're shutting
off the water. They're shutting off the electricity. They can't come up
with the money because there are so many delinquencies. The few who are
left can't come up with enough money to pay all the bills for everybody.
Q: How do these problems
affect sales in the buildings? I've heard it described as a "death
A: Sales are very poor
because people don't have the money to buy, No. 1. And, they don't want to
take over places with debt problems. Sales are very bad. Everything is
very bad. Let's face it.