AARP targets condo, homeowner boards

States are urged to adopt an owners' bill of rights.

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Joe Kollin

Published August 22, 2006


The 36-million-member AARP, acknowledging for the first time there are problems in condominiums and developments with homeowner associations, is asking states to pass laws protecting owners from abusive boards.

It calls for a 10-point bill of rights to protect owners, including the right to have "reasonable" associations and directors and the right to resolve disputes without going to court.
Some points, such as the right to recall directors, are already the law in Florida. Others, such as the right to be free from foreclosure over minor items, have been rejected.

"AARP is one of the elephants in the room, and that it came out and decided to push the issue is significant," said David A. Kahne, the Houston attorney hired by the AARP to write the policy report.

But Bob Schulbaum, of Delray Beach, president of the Delray Alliance, which represents 64 condo and homeowner association communities, says AARP should mind its own business.

"I think they're exceeding their boundaries," he said. "What do they have to do with relationships in associations? We may be retired but we're not retarded. Surveys show that 94 percent of the people are satisfied with the way their communities are run. Why do they need to come and agitate about things they know nothing about?"

According to state figures, more than 2 million Floridians live in 1.1 million condo units governed by about 19,000 associations. About half are in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties.

The state doesn't keep records of mandatory homeowner association communities, but experts say the numbers are equal to that of condos.

And the numbers are growing. The Alexandria, Va.-based Community Associations Institute estimates 80 percent of all new housing is being built in a community governed by an association.

AARP said it is stepping into the fray because its studies found a "polarization" in such communities, with unit owners on one side and managers on the other.

AARP's decision to support laws favoring unit owners could make a difference during next year's Florida legislative session. With 2.7 million members in the state, legislators will have to pay attention, said state Rep. Julio Robaina, R-Miami.

"This is very good news," said Robaina, who next year will resume his role as champion of unit owners, something he didn't do this year. "A very powerful group of people will be working with us to improve the situation in Florida's homeowner associations and condos."

After hearing hundreds of condo owners in Florida tell what he called "horror" stories of the way they were treated, Robaina in 2004 and 2005 led the drive for owner-friendly laws. His success included creation of the state condo ombudsman to mediate disputes between boards and owners.

At the legislative session earlier this year, however, Robaina spent most of his time on other causes, and much of the owner-friendly legislation failed.

In its report, AARP said that in 2003, the latest year available, 46 percent of owners in homeowner association communities and 56 percent of those in condos and cooperatives were over 50 years old.

Kahne said he will consider the report a success if it helps the average unit owner.

"I get calls all the time from owners who say they have been threatened by their association and asking what they should do. I give them the only practical answer: Capitulate. The association has all the money," he said.

The AARP's involvement could change that, said Harold Wechsler, an owner in the 21-floor, 266-apartment Plaza East on the Galt Ocean Mile on Fort Lauderdale beach.

"Unit owners not only in Florida but across the country are beset by attorneys who represent associations and lobby against owners so we need all the help we can get. And the AARP is a powerful force that can help us," he said.

In Florida, organizations have been created to lobby for both unit owners and associations. The Fort Lauderdale-based Community Association Leadership Lobby, or CALL, represents more than 3,500 associations that are clients of the Becker & Poliakoff law firm and the grass-roots Cyber Citizens for Justice, based in Deland and made up of volunteers, seeks laws representing unit owners.

"The tide is turning" in favor of unit owners, said Jan Bergemann, president of Cyber Citizens. "The AARP has gotten many complaints. Otherwise they wouldn't have gotten involved.''

Donna Berger, the executive director of CALL, said she hasn't reviewed the AARP reports but "if they are a rehash of the over-regulation and micromanaging" that the other side wants, she would be opposed. Legislators should spend their time on more important issues, such as insurance, she said.

"I don't see people leaving the state because a board president has been there too long," she said. "I see people leaving the state because insurance rates are too high."

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