Tina and Luis Lopez have owned their Rivercrest home for 12 years, raised two children there, even taking part in community events including the holiday decorating contest.
Now, they're just one step away from eviction — not for failing to keep up the payments like so many homeowners during the Great Recession but for missing one annual homeowners association fee that amounted to no more than $150.
Worse yet, they even have a canceled check showing they made the payment.
Still, late fees, lawyers costs and liens that have accrued in the seven years since then — combined with a notification system that favors the homeowners association over the homeowners — landed their property on the auction block.
Only a judge can keep them in their home now. A hearing on their appeal of the sale was held Jan. 25 and they await a ruling.
"We were good neighbors. We followed the rules," said Tina Lopez, 43. "How can people be so cold-hearted?"
The Lopez family is just one of the 1,386 owners of single-family homes, town homes and villas who are expected to pay dues each January to the Rivercrest Community Association. But they're not the only ones raising questions about the association's aggressive pursuit of fees.
This approach can end in foreclosures that attract investors who open the community to rentals — a concern of former association board member Cheryl Cusack. In the past two years, Cusack said, the number of rentals has grown to account for 39 percent of all homes in Rivercrest.
"These are the people who are supposed to be looking out for residents. They're supposed to make Rivercrest a better, safer community," she said. "Personal agendas, egos and the need for power have gotten in the way and morphed the homeowners association into a money-making machine at the expense of the community and its residents."
In 2015, the Tampa law firm that goes after fees for the homeowners association settled a class action suit in which it was accused of misleading property owners about consumer rights, inflating debts, and failing to give them a chance to agree on fee amounts.
Michael Greenwald, the Boca Raton attorney who brought the lawsuit, said the Tampa firm, Bush Ross, makes its money by collecting from individual homeowners rather than taking a flat fee from the many associations it represents.
This puts homeowners at a big disadvantage, Greenwald said.
"In its effort to collect delinquent homeowners' fees," he said, "Bush Ross takes legal action that can result in property owners losing their homes."
Upon settlement of the class action suit, 258 property owners — including the Lopez family in Rivercrest — received checks of $300 from Bush Ross.
But the settlement proved disastrous for the Lopezes. They thought it meant they were finally even with the homeowners association. As it turns out, their debt just spiraled faster.
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The family's troubles, they say, began in 2009 when the homeowners association failed to record the Lopez' annual $150 dues payment.
The association doesn't send out bill notices, expecting property owners on their own to send in the money each January. The Lopezes paid it late, May instead of January, but Lopez has a copy— as she does for each of the 12 years they've lived in Rivercrest.
"They never notified us of any problem so we had no reason to think they hadn't received our check," she said.
Brian Smith, who lives down the street from the Lopezes, also faulted the association for its lack of notice — and for what he called "strong-arm tactics."
"Residents are living in a state of fear," Smith said. "The HOA expects us to pay our annual fees each January but they don't send out a due letter. With everything happening around the holidays, it's easy to forget to pay."
Four years later, in October 2013, the Lopez family received a notice from Bush Ross that the firm would be placing a lien on their property unless they paid the disputed dues plus late fees, administrative fees and interest — a total of $785 — within 30 days.
"We were stunned," Tina Lopez said. "We had all the records showing we had sent in all of our dues. This didn't make sense."
It made sense to Cusack, the former association board member. In 2009, she said, the association was in the process of changing management companies over concerns about proper record keeping.
"Checks were lost; people weren't credited when they paid their dues," Cusack said.
Two board members spent days going through the books, trying to find all the errors.
"Unfortunately, they didn't catch the mistake with Tina's check."
The Lopezes said they couldn't afford to pay $785. They were facing expenses related to job layoffs, hospitalizations, and starting their own cleaning company. Instead, they offered the proof that they had paid year after year.
They didn't realize that all those payments after 2009 didn't go to their annual dues but toward administrative and late fees imposed by Bush Ross in connection with the disputed payment.
Bush Ross responded by filing a lawsuit on behalf of the homeowners association board. By that time, the firm claimed the Lopezes owed $2,196.
The couple offered to settle for the $785. In an April 2014 letter, Bush Ross said the board denied the offer but would be willing to set up a payment plan.
The Lopezes agreed and were making payments when they received the class action notice from attorney Greenwald, accusing Bush Ross of violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
Bush Ross attorney Charles Glausier declined to comment last month on the Lopez case because the auction sale is still in court. Glausier said Bush Ross only takes legal action with an association's blessing: "We follow the direction of the board of directors."
A large part of the firm's practice is representing homeowners associations, he said, perhaps hundreds of them.
Bush Ross has filed formal notice of liens with the Hillsborough County Circuit Clerk against 72 homes in Rivercrest, a review of the clerk's records shows.
"Only 10 to 15 percent of these cases turn into foreclosures," Glausier said. "It happened more often during the recession when almost every association was having a rough time collecting fees. But you see it less today."
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The first thing the Lopezes did when they received their $300 settlement check was to stop making monthly payments to Bush Ross.
"We assumed since they settled, we didn't owe them anymore," Luis Lopez said.
That decision may cost them their home, said Tampa attorney Betty Thomas, who took on the Lopez' case two weeks ago.
"I can see why they felt they shouldn't make payments to a law firm that settled a lawsuit in which they were a party," Thomas said. "They thought the lawsuit voided their settlement. But it was a mistake not to continue with the settlement payments."
Once the payments stopped, Bush Ross filed a suit to foreclose.
"We tried to get in touch with them about the lawsuit but we were never able to talk to anyone," said Luis Lopez, 53. "They say they got in touch with us to settle but we never received anything by certified or regular mail."
Glausier said his firm routinely provides property owners notice of any action it takes, and Thomas acknowledged that there is evidence a copy of the sale notice was sent to the Lopez' address.
"The odds are against them," Thomas said. "It's a lot tougher to win these cases when a third party has already put up the funds to purchase the property."
She added, "They usually put tenants in these homes and rent them out."
Current members of the homeowners association board did not respond to requests for interviews. The management company for Rivercrest, Wise Property Management, declined to comment.
Smith, the Lopez' neighbor, said he has had his own battles with the homeowners' association during the 12 years he's lived in Rivercrest — most recently over weeds in his front garden.
"So we redid the entire garden over Mother's Day and sent the HOA photos," Smith said. Still, Bush Ross notified him he'd racked up $1,000 in fines and attorney's fees.
"We ended up settling just to get them off our backs," he said.
Smith has sold his home in Rivercrest, saying, "I'll never again live in a community with a homeowners association."
The Lopezes, meantime, are pleading with a judge to let them stay in Rivercrest with their children Anthony, 16, and Jessica, 8.
When they bought the four-bedroom, three-bath, two-story home for $270,000, the couple was moving to Riverview from a cramped apartment in Brooklyn.
"We thought we were living the American dream," Luis Lopez said, "but it's turned into a nightmare."
Contact D'Ann Lawrence White at [email protected]