The case of Tina and Luis Lopez, who are on the verge of losing their home of 12 years over a $150 payment to their homeowners' association, exposes a system bereft of fairness and proportion. Even common sense went out the window in the Kafka-like series of events that put the home of this innocent Riverview couple and their two children on the auction block.
Worst of all, they didn't even know it was happening.
They may get a reprieve next week with an 11th hour mediation hearing, thanks to reporting by Tampa Bay Times correspondent D'Ann Lawrence White. But Florida, called upon often to tinker with statutes governing the divisive, de facto city halls known as homeowners' associations, needs to tinker once again to conform its laws with logic if not fairness.
People living in communities governed by one of the state's 13,000 homeowners' associations, and there are 2.5 million of them in Florida, are subject to an escalating series of fines and fees if they fail to pay dues they owe their association. And there is no requirement that the association provide them any notice — or even a bill for annual dues — until they're ready to slap a lien on the home.
Adding to the nonsense: Once homeowners do learn of the debt and try to bring it down, any payments they make can go first to the fines and fees, leaving the dues owed and the home still subject to liens, foreclosure and auction.
The beneficiaries of this system are the collectors of the fines and fees. In the case of the Rivercrest neighborhood where the Lopez family lives, and in hundreds of other neighborhoods across Florida, that's a single Tampa law firm that has made a business of these questionable practices.
Their actions are by all appearances perfectly legal under current law. But in their scope, they're reminiscent of the foreclosure mills that thrived during the real estate collapse in Florida by reducing the plight of overextended homeowners to an assembly line, complete with machines to scribble signatures on paperwork in lieu of individual review.
Homeowners' associations often wash their hands of the collection process, turning it over to the law firm. The firm agrees to charge the association nothing for the work, taking payment directly from the homeowner instead and creating an incentive to pile on the fines and fees.
Now, as has been proven time and again in Florida, homeowners' associations — like any form of self-government — are only as effective and responsive as the individual members who agree to step forward and serve. And some still are emerging from the real estate collapse, when so many homeowners failed to pay dues — often, because they lost their houses — that associations couldn't make ends meet to properly maintain their neighborhoods.
What's more, people can choose to buy in a neighborhood that isn't subject to the deed restrictions and common fees enforced by a homeowners' association. If you dream of painting your house turquoise, erecting a flag pole like Mar-A-Lago, or tilling a front-yard vegetable garden, it's probably not for you.
But by all accounts, the Lopez family of Riverview were model neighbors, 12-year residents of the Rivercrest neighborhood who took part in association activities.
They paid their dues every year — even, it turns out, during the year they were fined for missing: Adding insult to injury is that they can prove they paid, but as White reported, accounting by the homeowners association was in disarray at the time so it was never recorded.
That didn't stop the fines and fees from piling on.
Their case provides a blueprint for the next round of reforms needed in laws governing the state's homeowners' associations.
There are no measures under consideration in Tallahassee addressing the clear need to require notification at every step of the process leading up to the filing of a lien. Even the lobby for the associations encourages members to notify early and often, though it doesn't want to see this made law.
It should be.
One measure the Legislature is considering this spring, House Bill 295, gives the state the power to investigate and enforce complaints against homeowners' associations and contains a provision prohibiting the filing of liens to collect homeowners' association dues.
This is a good idea.
The association lobby makes the questionable argument that its member groups won't be able to pay their bills without the ability to file liens.
Instead, they should see themselves as partners in keeping people in their homes and should work with them in other ways to collect their dues. Associations owe their members an obligation deeper than cash.
What's more, foreclosure is the wrong tool for an association that should be seeking to keep vacant houses to a minimum and encourage owner occupancy over rentals.
Granted, now that the market is warming, the likelihood is declining that homes vacated by foreclosure will stand vacant for long. But families like the Lopezes provide a stability that any neighborhood should value.
It's certainly worth more than $150.