A homeowners association auctions a couple's East Lake home to recover dues that fell in arrears.
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 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.
They wonder: Couldn't someone have walked over to knock on their neighbors' door to find out what was going on? 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, 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.
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 that 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, leaving Mrs. Hammer to deal with their financial affairs.
The Hammers kept their problems to themselves.
What the Eagle Trace at Boot Ranch Homeowners Association board knew about the Hammers was that, as of early 2000, it had been about a year and a half since they had paid their $35-per-month assessment fees, 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.
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.
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.
Medical bills began to pile up, and the Hammers 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."
In January, Judge William Blackwood Jr. signed a final summary judgment against the Hammers.
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.
Brudny says 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 didn't really lose anything," Brudny said.
A hearing on the issue has been scheduled next month.
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.' "