RIVERVIEW — A Riverview family on the brink of losing their home for failing to pay a $150 homeowners association fee has been offered an 11th hour chance at mediation following news coverage of their plight.
Tampa property rights attorney Ryan Torrens, who represents Tina and Luis Lopez, said the law firm for the Rivercrest Master Homeowners Association approached him about mediating the dispute over the Lopez family's 2009 homeowners association fee.
The change of heart comes as state lawmakers are considering a measure that addresses many of the issues arising from the Lopez family's case, including a requirement that homeowners' associations provide more notice when members fall behind on fees.
The Lopez family actually offered proof they had paid the fee in 2009. A former association board member told the Tampa Bay Times its accounting practices were in disorder at the time. Still, the Tampa law firm Bush Ross placed a lien on the home in 2013 and ultimately foreclosed on behalf of the Rivercrest association.
Tina and Luis Lopez purchased their two-story home for $280,000 12 years ago. Last May, it sold to an investment group at a public auction for $19,000.
Torrens attributes the new offer by Bush Ross to news coverage of the family's plight. A mediation conference is scheduled Tuesday. Bush Ross attorney Charles Glausier told the Times the firm does not comment on pending litigation except through court filings.
Torrens said he represents several other homeowners involved in disputes with homeowners associations represented by Bush Ross. All their cases have been resolved since the Lopez story first was reported in January.
Another homeowner, Richard Amisson of Sun City Center, has filed a complaint against Bush Ross with the community's Seniors Versus Crime office, a special project of the Florida Attorney General's Office established to cut down on crimes against senior citizens.
Amisson, who purchased his home in February 2015, said Bush Ross placed a lien on his property for failing to make three monthly homeowners association payments. The association later discovered it made an accounting error. However, the lien was not removed.
The law firm recently offered to settle Amisson's case if he pays $400. Amisson said he refuses to pay on principle.
"I'm stubborn and I won't be blackmailed," he said. "This is nothing more than legal extortion, racketeering."
Jim Granan, manager of the Seniors Versus Crime office, said complaints filed in his office are typically investigated by a volunteer and referred to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, which decides which cases should be reviewed by the State Attorney's Office.
In this case, Granan said, the sheriff's office concluded it had no jurisdiction because it was a civil rather than a criminal matter.
Torrens said he's never heard of a state attorney's office in any of Florida's judicial circuits investigating a dispute between a homeowner and an association, but he insists they have the authority to pursue civil cases.
He said changing the law is the best recourse for homeowners. Some 2.5 million property owners fall under the jurisdiction of homeowners associations in Florida.
Law firms throughout the state, Torrens said, prosper at homeowner expense because the laws allow them to represent homeowners associations for free, generating their revenue by running up late fees, attorney's fees and interest from individual homeowners.
The laws governing homeowners associations, Chapter 720 of the Florida statutes, do not require notification when overdue fees and fines are levied. As a result, many homeowners don't learn they're racking up debts until the matter is turned over to an attorney.
At that point, the law does require notification — 45 days before a lien is placed on a property.
Rep. Charlie Stone, R-Ocala, is sponsoring a reform measure in the state legislative session now under way. House Bill 295 would give the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which licenses the state's 13,000 homeowners associations, the authority to investigate complaints against them.
The bill also prohibits liens for failure to pay fines and authorizes the department to mediate disputes. But it contains no provision, as earlier failed reform measures did, requiring earlier notification of dues and assessments.
The Community Association Leadership Lobby, which represents more than 4,000 condominium and homeowners associations in Florida, has taken no position on Stone's proposal yet. But lobby attorney Yeline Goin told the Times it would be a mistake for the state to impose additional regulations on associations because the cost of meeting them would ultimately be passed on to property owners.
Goin defended the practice of imposing liens for unpaid assessments and fines.
"That's how HOAs fund their budgets," she said. "You don't want to take that right away from them. What if everybody in the community refuses to pay their assessments and fines? The HOA wouldn't be able to pay its bills. It could bankrupt the association."
In some cases, Goin acknowledged, associations pad their coffers by taking over the titles on foreclosed properties and renting them out until the bank or mortgage company does its own foreclosure and the title is transferred.
She said her lobby encourages members to provide early notification of dues and assessments but doesn't believe this should be codified into law. The 45-day requirement before filing a lien is sufficient, she said.
The Rivercrest association should have a procedure in place to notify homeowners sooner, Goin said.
"I know some HOAs aren't as aggressive as others with their collections," she said. "But it's not a good practice to wait four years to collect an unpaid assessment."
Contact D'Ann Lawrence White at [email protected]