In The News

Law Boosts Rights Of Homeowners

Miami Herald, The (FL)

October 3, 2004
Section: New Homes
Edition: Final
Page: 1H
Memo: Correction ran October 12, 2004; see end of text.

Correction: An article with the headline ``Law Boosts Rights of Homeowners'' on Page 1H of the Sunday Herald misrepresented the provisions of a new law prohibiting homeowners' associations from filing liens against homeowners. The new law covers only those who don't pay fines. Homeowners' associations can still file liens if special assessments aren't paid.

LAW BOOSTS RIGHTS OF HOMEOWNERS
DONNA GEHRKE-WHITE, dgehrke@herald.com

You've been told to shut up at a homeowners' board meeting. You've been hit with hundreds of dollars of extra homeowners' fees - from a special assessment that you didn't even know your association's board of directors was considering.

And when you balked at paying homeowners' association fines or a special assessment, you found yourself threatened with a lien against your home.

Now relief is on the way - or so Florida legislators hope, as new laws took effect Friday to give homeowners in associations more rights.

A new law requires homeowners' associations to allow members to speak at board meetings. All owners must be notified at least 14 days in advance of a meeting in which a special assessment is proposed. And the new law prohibits associations from filing liens - and foreclosing on homes - when owners don't pay fines or special assessments. The associations will now have to file a lawsuit to get the money owed. Both condos and homeowners' associations can still file liens if owners don't pay their regular dues.

``It's new and it's a good thing,'' said Eric Glazer, a Hallandale attorney who specializes in homeowner and condo law. ``It's the first real attempt at bringing homeowners' associations under the umbrella law of condominium associations. Condos were always a lot more regulated.''

``There are now clear guidelines that homeowners' associations have to abide by - they're no longer left to their discretion,'' adds state Rep. Julio Robaina, chairman of the condominium governance committee that proposed some of the new rules.

Still, not everyone sees the changes as good or even necessary.

STATE INTERVENES

While the state was right to intervene to protect homeowners against those associations that slap liens and then foreclose on homes for minor fines, the new law inadvertently protects those who are trying to skip paying special assessments, says Eric Estebanez, president of Pointe Management Group, which manages several Broward and Palm Beach communities.

``In reality, some people have no intention of paying,'' he says. Now, to go after such folks, associations will have to endure a longer and more costly process: filing lawsuits for the money owed.

``That hurts the associations,'' he says. Ultimately, he adds, that also hurts the majority of homeowners who pay on time. Indeed, in the next legislative session, Rep. Robaina anticipates a fight against the restrictions on homeowners' associations filing liens. Condo associations have never been able to file liens to collect fines and special assessments.

``Associations will challenge it,'' he predicts.
In the past, he adds, legislators were reluctant to regulate homeowners' associations. But with nearly all new single-family or townhome developments being formed with associations, they had no choice, Robaina says.

Estimates are that 40 percent of all Floridians will either be in condo or homeowners' associations by 2010, he says.

Therefore, regulating all associations ``has become one of the hottest issues in the Legislature,'' he adds. In the last session, legislators voted to further help condo associations - and unit owners - by setting up a ombudsman's office that will educate condo boards and owners as well as investigate any complaints owners have about their association.

Those owning condominiums in a building less than 75 feet tall also now have more flexibility: If a majority of condominium owners vote not to pay the extra money to retrofit their buildings with sprinklers, then the association doesn't have to install the fire safety devices.

``That can save a lot of money, potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars,'' attorney Glazer says. The risk is whether the owners will be as safe during fires without the sprinklers, he adds.

TO RENT OR NOT

Floridians belonging to a homeowners' association now have more of their rights spelled out in state law:

Owners can speak at board meetings on any matter placed on the agenda. The board of directors, however, can require people to sign in to speak and can restrict their comments to three minutes. A homeowners board must put an issue on its agenda if 20 percent of the owners sign a petition asking for the matter to be discussed. The board must give homeowners at least 14 days' notice before the issue is discussed at a meeting. Owners can look at association records without having to give a reason. If they want copies, the association cannot charge more than 50 cents per page if it has a photocopier - or the actual cost if the association has the copies made elsewhere. Homeowner boards must prepare annual financial statements. Those associations that take in more than $400,000 a year must have their finances audited. Board directors can be recalled if a majority of homeowners sign written ballots asking them to be recalled. The board shall hold a meeting within five business days after receipt of the agreement or ballots to certify the recall. Owners can vote on replacements on the same ballot. Association boards must send out written notices to all owners at least 14 days in advance of a special assessment vote, detailing what the extra money will be used for. The board must also post signs of the upcoming assessment hearing - or broadcast notice on closed-circuit cable television - at least 14 days in advance. The boards must also send out written notices 14 days in advance of a hearing in which they are considering adding, changing or revoking rules for community-owned grounds. Associations are required to obtain bids for contracts that are more than 10 percent an association's total budget, unless the services are provided by a vendor who has a local government franchise agreement, such as a cable TV provider.

WHAT THE NEW LAW DOES

Owners now have the right to:

  • Speak at board meetings on agenda items.
  • Look at association records without giving a reason.
  • Receive written notice at least 14 days in advance of a meeting in which the board will vote on a special assessment or changing rules for community grounds.
  • Put an item on a board meeting's agenda if 20 percent of the owners sign a petition to have it discussed.
  • Recall board directors if a majority of all owners sign a written ballot.

Condo owners already had most of these rights, which the law now extends to homeowner groups.

Copyright (c) 2004 The Miami Herald