Sitting in her small condo in one of Tampa Bay's biggest retirement communities as her hands tremble, a 75-year-old woman reads a letter threatening to put her out of her home. Like so many other Floridians, Ann Studen is facing foreclosure. But in her case, it has nothing to do with her mortgage. She's four months behind on her $280 monthly maintenance fees, and her condo board has put a lien on her $70,000 unit.
It happens more often than you might think. While no one tracks foreclosures prompted by homeowner boards and associations, there are a rising number of people in Studen's situation, according to civil court judges and condominium officials.
In a shaky economy, this is one more way that people are falling through the cracks.
"I have no place to go. Where could I go?" says Studen, her face contorting in anguish. She's out of savings, low on cash and running out of time.
Evicting her may seem cold and harsh. And while condominium experts say they sympathize, many are quick to defend the practice.
Their argument: Condominium associations have to take aggressive steps to collect unpaid fees so they can do things like mow the grass, clean the pool, service the elevators and keep the lights on in common areas. If some owners don't pay, their neighbors have to pay more to make up for it. Increased fees for all can mean more defaulters. It can spin out of control.
"We feel sorry for people like this lady, but you can look at it both ways," says Bill Raphan of the state Condominium Ombudsman's Office.
"The rest of the owners are bearing the burden. If you were paying $100 a month and 50 percent of the unit owners don't pay, you're going to pay $200 a month. Every time someone is delinquent, your piece of the pie gets bigger."
These days he's seeing condominiums, particularly in South Florida, where 50, 60, even 70 percent of the owners are defaulting on their maintenance fees or mortgages.
"It's a cascade effect, like an avalanche."
The Tampa Bay area's high foreclosure rate is well documented. Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando counties had more than 62,000 foreclosure filings of all kinds last year.
But nobody knows how many of Florida's 1.3-million condo residents are losing their homes because of unpaid maintenance fees. The state doesn't keep track. Neither do condo associations.
Anecdotally, experts say the number is climbing dramatically.
Raphan, the state's top condo peacekeeper, mediates all kinds of disputes and says his office is getting "a tremendous increase" in calls about foreclosures due to delinquent fees — five times as many as a couple of years ago.
"It's rampant. It's just getting out of hand," says Jan Bergemann, founder of Cyber Citizens for Justice, a Florida-based advocacy group for home and condo owners. "There must be no empty spaces under Florida's bridges anymore — they're kicking people out left and right."
Pinellas Circuit Judge J. Thomas McGrady, who handles foreclosures, is seeing an increase in these cases — "not nearly as often as the traditional foreclosure, but there is a fair number of them." Most of the time, he says, the condo in question is not its owner's primary home.
Typically, the foreclosed condo's title reverts to the lender, and the condo association collects up to six months in delinquent fees.
A few years ago, a state senator tried to ban associations from foreclosing on owners who owe less than $2,500 in fees. His bill failed due to opposition from condo boards.
For Ann Studen, the numbers just aren't adding up anymore. She has outlived her nest egg.
She lives alone in a one-bedroom condo in On Top of the World, a sprawling retirement community off U.S. 19 in Clearwater.
She moved here in 2006 from Queens, N.Y. A longtime tour guide for Gray Line bus tours, she mistakenly figured she would be able to land a full-time job here. She's still looking.
Her only companion is her lapdog Mimi, a curly-furred bichon frise from the pound. Her only family member is a son in Queens who has a one-bedroom apartment and his own financial difficulties.
She's had orthopedic problems. She has a rod in her back.
"When you're disabled and paying for nursing care, the money goes very quickly when you can't earn a proper living," she says.
She recently scored a temporary part-time job as a receptionist in the lobby of Clearwater's municipal services building. For some time before that, she had no work at all. That's when she really started falling behind.
Social Security isn't enough. She gets meals from a food bank. She's behind on her mortgage, but her bank has a moratorium on foreclosures. She can't sell her home because she owes more than it's worth.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society paid for two months of condo fees. But she fell behind again.
The letter came in November: You are hereby notified that On Top of the World Condominium Association … gives notice of its intention to foreclose a lien to collect unpaid assessments.
On Top of the World is largely run by the family of its developer, Sidney Colen. Its 10,000 residents give the Colen family mixed reviews. Some think the Colens have too much control and the fees are too high. Others think it's an enjoyable and economical place to live.
Sidney Colen's nephew, Gerald Colen, is the condo association's lawyer. He sent Studen the foreclosure notice.
"We don't want to be taking people out of their homes. It's awful," he said in an interview. "The association works with people who are in a crunch."
He suggested that Studen contact him and try to work out a payment schedule.
Studen is reluctant to do so. Besides, she has little money. She now owes $1,842 for five months of maintenance fees, late charges and attorney's fees.
"I just want to plead mercy to the courts," she said. She's expecting to get a summons to a foreclosure hearing.
She's afraid to check the mail.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.