If I had to briefly describe Florida community associations (COAs, HOAs, Mobile Home Parks) I would sum it up to “abuse of power.”
A majority of the associations in the State of Florida abuse the power granted to them by the statutes and the governing documents (Declarations, Bylaws, Articles of Incorporation, and Rules and Regulations) of the association. In the early to mid0-2000s, House Representative Julio Robaina, who was head of the House Select Committee on Condominium and HOA Reform set up town hall meetings all over the state to listen to the complaints by owners regarding their associations. Hundreds of people attended these town hall meetings and only one or two people ever spoke up to say they were happy with their association. As you can guess these one or two people were board members.
Don’t get me wrong; there are a number of good associations out there who do their job without abusing the owners. I know because the associations I represent operate their communities that way or I would not be representing them.
The problem lies with the association attorneys, as well as the courts and the Florida Bar for letting the association attorneys behave badly. The problem lies with the Florida Legislature for not enacting more laws to protect the owners or creating an agency to properly regulate the associations. Homeowner associations are not regulated at all. The other types of associations that are regulated do not provide adequate protection for the owners or do not have jurisdiction to investigate the biggest problems, such as assessment disputes. This means the only remedy available to homeowners is costly litigation and the attorneys know this. They advise their clients the likelihood of someone litigating against the association is slim and even if they do chances are they will drop the case when they realize the money it will take, which is between $100,000 and $150,000 on average to get a case to court. In fact one association law firm gave a sales presentation that I sat in on and stated that 95% of the homeowners cannot afford to litigate against you. Their motto was “do now, defend later.” The board members, once educated on this fact, then start to abuse the power they have to suppress the property rights of the owners.
Tactics include censorship of those outspoken owners and litigation against them if possible. Associations will foreclose on an owner who is past due a few hundred dollars and is outspoken rather than foreclose on someone who owes more but doesn’t make trouble.
Attorneys’ fees are the biggest problem with association abuse. The statutes actually provide for the owner to reimburse the association the attorneys’ fees without a court action! Even worse, any payments are applied to interest, late fees and attorneys’ fees first. Payments are applied to assessments last, so if you are past due, unless you pay the amount in full, you will always be at risk of foreclosure. Knowing this, the law firms representing the associations pad their bills heavily. A recent case I was involved in, where the association lost the client’s monthly payment of $160 resulted in almost $800 the first month and $62.50 each month, minimum, just for handling an account in collections and processing the payment. This client paid in advance several months at a time and there was only one month in dispute, but the association sold off the debt to a finance company who then applied hundreds of dollars in legal fees almost every month on top of the legal fees the association attorney charged. The attorneys’ fees reached $20,000 quickly despite one $160 payment being in dispute.
I have had clients who are turned over to the association attorney for collections and they are told they cannot go by the law firm and cannot call. They are given the email address of a contact person to discuss settlement. Guess what? That person no longer works there and the owner is given two or three email addresses of former employees. While I complained about this to the law firm several years ago, I recently discovered the firm is still engaging in this practice. When they finally do read the emails the owner sent, they want to bill the owner for all the emails sent despite no one reading them when they were sent.
Violations are another area of abuse. If your association doesn’t like you, you will be targeted with violation notices and possibly fines, which then can be a lien and foreclosure on your home if the fines exceed $1,000 and are unpaid.
Life in an association does not have to be this way. There is a better way of operating these associations, but until the State of Florida wises up and realizes they are promoting a “cash cow,” not just for the attorneys, but for the community association managers, as well, life in an association will be a living hell with a dictatorship form of government. By the way, the courts have ruled long ago associations are not governments or quasi-governments.