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A high price to pay

After battling colon cancer for more than a year, Linda Hammer might lose her Boot Ranch home because she did not pay $450 in homeowners association fees.

Last March, the homeowners association filed a foreclosure suit to recoup the unpaid fees by taking her house. Last month, the property was sold at auction.

Now Mrs. Hammer, 58, is battling in court to keep her home. The house is assessed for tax purposes at $154,000, but, based on similar sales, the property appraiser's office estimates it could sell for nearly $205,000. She said she fell behind on bills during her illness, but has worked to make sure her mortgage is current. She said she didn't realize that she could lose her house by not paying her homeowners association fees.

"I was concentrating on making the house payments and trying to keep the place up," she said. "I really did not understand that this is what was going on."

Some neighbors see the foreclosure as cold and outrageous.

"You just don't do things like that," said Rob Bergquist, who lives down Eagle Trace Boulevard from the Hammers.

Couldn't someone have walked over to knock on their neighbors' door to find out what was going on? they wonder. Couldn't the association simply have filed a lien against the house? Should homeowners associations even have the power to foreclose on homes?

"Nobody cared enough to go down the street to ask questions," said Bob Wilcopolski, who lives around the corner. "We don't have any compassion."

But the association's attorney said the Hammers got plenty of notice about the impending foreclosure sale.

"We just went through the proper procedures," attorney Michael Brudny said. "We didn't hear from them. They didn't follow the proper procedures."

When the Hammers bought their home in Boot Ranch's Eagle Trace subdivision, the covenants attached to their deed required them to pay the homeowners fees. The deed covenants, a type of contract, specifically state that the homeowners association has the authority to foreclose on a homeowner for not paying the fee.

Such foreclosures are becoming more frequent with the growth of new developments with homeowners associations, according to an expert.

"Homeowners associations have a tremendous amount of power and an astonishing number of people living in associations don't understand that, " said Evan McKenzie, a lawyer and political science professor at the University of Illinois _ Chicago.

"The foreclosure question is the single most serious abuse that is being practiced all over the country," said McKenzie, who wrote the book Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government.

Many homeowners associations have left collections up to lawyers who have a financial interest in pursuing expensive foreclosure actions, he said.

"It's as if they (board members) are not dealing with their neighbors," McKenzie said. "They get caught up in the legal stuff from their collections lawyer and they throw neighbors out of homes. It is destroying any semblance of community they would have in their neighborhood."

In Eagle Trace, a neighborhood of lush lawns and palm trees, few neighbors knew the Hammers except to wave occasionally in passing.

They did not know that Mrs. Hammer learned in February 2000 that she had colon cancer, or that her weekly chemotherapy treatments left her so fatigued she was out of work for eight months. They did not know that her husband, Robert, worked as a trucker and had to be on the road for long periods of time, leaving Mrs. Hammer to deal with their financial affairs.

The Hammers kept their problems to themselves.

Mrs. Hammer said she felt uncomfortable announcing, "Hey, I've got cancer!"

They also didn't want to tell anyone about their mounting bills.

"I was embarrassed by this whole thing," she said.

What the Eagle Trace at Boot Ranch Homeowners Association board knew about the Hammers was that as of early 2000, they had not paid their $35 per month assessment fees in about a year and a half, totaling $604.

The board authorized its attorney to move forward with a foreclosure action in court. When the matter came up at a board meeting, Bergquist said he spoke up.

"Has anyone bothered to talk to these people?" he asked.

Perhaps, he suggested, someone ought to go knock on their door to find out whether there was a problem.

"That seems the neighborly way to do things," he said.

Board members said the matter would be handled through the mail. And in March 2000, the association filed a foreclosure suit against the Hammers.

The next month, the Hammers got a letter from the association's attorney, Brudny, saying they owed $605 in delinquent dues, plus attorneys fees, for a total of $1,800.

Mrs. Hammer called Brudny's office.

"I've got cancer," she said. "I'm doing the best I can."

She and her husband signed a letter agreeing to pay $100 a month toward their balance. They made two payments.

Then Mrs. Hammer got sidetracked with the illness. Chemotherapy treatments sapped all her energy.

"I just laid here on the couch," she said.

"The chemo was very hard on her," said her doctor, Anda Norbergs of Cornerstone Cancer Center in East Lake.

Medical bills began to pile up and the Hammers also fell behind in their mortgage payments. Robert Hammer, who had taken off from work for two months last spring after his wife's surgery to remove the cancer, decided he had to get back out on the road.

"I left her here to deal with the day-to-day problems," he said. "It's kind of sad, but it's life."

Mrs. Hammer said she got a notice of impending foreclosure on the home and dipped into her retirement fund to satisfy the mortgage company, which withdrew its lien.

"In my mind, they (the mortgage holders) were the only ones who could foreclose on you," she said. "Now I find out it wasn't the mortgage company, it was the homeowners association."

Homeowners association board president Gary Vosselmann referred calls from the St. Petersburg Times to Brudny.

Brudny said the Hammers got lots of notices about the impending foreclosure. The notices were ignored, he said.

Mrs. Hammer said many of the notices didn't make sense to her.

"Going through that chemo, it really does something to your mind," she said. "You're not sharp."

Fearing she might lose her medical benefits and falling behind in bills, she returned in October to her job as a contractor's administrator for a filter manufacturing company in Clearwater.

In January, Judge William Blackwood Jr. signed a final summary judgment against the Hammers. According to that document, the delinquent assessments had grown to $685. But in addition to that, there also was $368 in court costs, $193 in interest and nearly $1,800 in attorney's fees.

The property was sold at auction Feb. 20. The highest bidders were Mark Veltre and Stephen Maisel. Their bid was for $36,100. In addition, they agreed to assume the Hammers' outstanding mortgage of $125,000.

When Mrs. Hammer got a letter that the home was sold, "I was in shock for two to three days," she said.

She called several attorneys until one, Collin Vause, agreed to take her case.

On the day before the deadline to contest a foreclosure, Vause filed an objection to the sale. The motion argues that the Hammers mistakenly thought the foreclosure action was solely a matter with the mortgage company.

Vause also argues that the winning auction bid was "grossly disproportionate" to the actual value of the property. The $36,100 bid together with the $125,000 owed on the mortgage comes to $161,100. Vause contends the property's value is about $210,000. The home is 2,510 square feet with a pool.

"The buyer is going to make a killing if they get title to the house," Vause said.

Brudny says that the Hammers got "very close to the full value for their property." Once the association's lien is satisfied, he said, the balance of the $36,000 paid at auction will go to the Hammers.

"They (the Hammers) didn't really lose anything," Brudny said.

Veltre and Maisel said they don't know the market value of the house. But they said they purchased the home fair and square.

"We bought the property," Maisel said. "Everything here is legally on the up and up."

A hearing on the issue has been scheduled for next month.

Veltre and Maisel said they made several efforts to contact the Hammers to see whether it would be possible to work something out with them and avoid a legal battle.

Mrs. Hammer said she opted not to meet with them because she doesn't have the money to pay them if they ask for a settlement of some sort.

The association's attorney said he got a call this week from the association's president and the property manager asking for an update, because there is growing neighborhood interest in the situation.

"We can't unilaterally set aside the sale," Brudny told them. "We don't have the authority. It's up to the bidder if the sale is going to be set aside."

Several of the Hammers' neighbors are outraged.

"I'm going to assume she screwed up," Bergquist said. "Still, this is a neighborhood. You don't do something like this to someone without a face-to-face. Everyone around here has been saying, "If we had known, we would have done something.' "

"To take a house for $450, that's not right," Wilcopolski said.

Robert Moerlein blames the homeowners association board.

"They're political wanna-bes who got a little power and it's gone to their heads," Moerlein said. "Someone should have made the effort to try and go talk to these people to find out what the problem was."

Why not just place a lien against the home so that the money comes due when the house is sold? Wilcopolski asked.

Brudny said that was an option. But that means the money might not be paid for years, until the home is sold. And there is a danger, he said, that if a bank forecloses on the property, the association's lien could be discarded.

Homeowners associations have few options to force residents to pay, he said. Lax enforcement can encourage others not to pay as well, he said.

"If you take it to the next level (threaten foreclosure), most people will make arrangements to pay," Brudny said.

Mrs. Hammer said she doesn't understand how, after eight years, she could lose her house over homeowners dues.

"All I know is I don't want to lose my home," she said.

_ Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or