NEW TAMPA — Nestled among the manicured communities of New Tampa, the Villas condominium looks like a hurricane survivor.
The complex, residents say, is the victim of shoddy building and water damage. In a lengthy effort to fix it, walls on six of the 25 buildings now stand exposed — down to the Tyvek wrap covering the wood, the stucco having been removed.
Because of that, the city of Tampa code enforcement department has levied fines against the development's association — at one point more than $500 a day — since August 2010.
But the Villas doesn't have the money to make all the repairs at once, said association president Geoffrey Nordwall.
"We're trying to get loans, but no banks will loan to us,'' he said. "We really have no way out of it.''
Jake Slater, director of city code enforcement, expressed sympathy for the plight of the association and its residents, noting that they're "stuck in the middle.''
"We don't run into this too often,'' Slater said.
The Villas Condominium Association filed a lawsuit naming Villas Funding Co. Inc. as one of the defendants. The company converted the complex from apartments to condominiums, then sold the units.
The association charges that the seller and its inspectors should have known and revealed that poor workmanship by the original builder was causing water damage.
Jim Dickson of St. Petersburg, the attorney for Villas Funding Co., said there was no warranty on the sale of the condos, so his client isn't responsible for paying damages.
The complex lawsuit, filed in 2009, has yet to be resolved.
Now the residents are stuck with the bill for repairs and fines from the city. Slater said the fines were inadvertently stopped at one point, but have resumed and this week totaled more than $44,500. The city is ready to "work with'' the association on the fines once the buildings are brought up to code, he said.
Nordwall wrote a letter to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn last month, asking for help in getting financing to make the repairs, but was told there was nothing the city could do.
The residential community opened in 2001 as an apartment complex. In 2005, it converted to condominiums. Then, in 2007, Nordwall said, residents started seeing problems in the stucco and wood frame complex.
"They noticed on a lot of balconies, wood was rotting. There was a lot of water damage showing up on the outside of the stucco.''
The association brought in a contractor to make repairs. He removed stucco from parts of seven buildings to gauge the extent of the damage. The contractor told the association board that the damage was extensive and repairs would be costly.
"The deeper he dug, the more problems he found,'' Nordwall said.
Then board members realized they didn't have the money for such extensive repairs, so the contractor stopped working in the middle of the project, Nordwall said. That's why the complex still looks like a work zone with exposed siding.
The condo association later brought in a structural engineering firm to survey the damage. In the letter to Buckhorn, Nordwall wrote that the engineers concluded that "poor building practices'' caused the water damage and that all 25 buildings need to be repaired — at an estimated cost of $14 million.
"In a lot of places, the structural supports were rotting out,'' Nordwall said.
Odessa Brown, a member of the Villas board, said one of the engineers told her that poorly constructed wood-frame condominium and apartment buildings are an "epidemic'' in Florida.
It's an issue Brown thinks needs to be addressed by local and state government, or "it's going to keep happening to other people.''
The association, meanwhile, has squirreled away money from residents' monthly maintenance assessments, which range from $240 to $350, to pay for some repairs. So far, one of the seven buildings has been completed.
Slater said the city is trying to give the association a chance to work out its problems. The city hasn't called for payment of fines and has suspended liens on six buildings in an effort to enable the association to borrow money for repairs, the code enforcement director said.
"We just want to see it fixed.''
Photographs he has seen indicate the association is making headway, he said.
"It looks a whole lot better than (it) did back in '09 and '10.''
Nordwall said he has called everyone he can think of for help.
As he said in his letter to the mayor, "Everyone we talk with tells us they understand that we have done nothing wrong and that it is an unfortunate situation we are in but there is nothing they can do to help.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3435.