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More humanity needed with association fees

People who have high blood pressure probably should avoid the story of Linda and Robert Hammer and their struggle to keep their home. It is enough to make anyone's blood pressure spike.

As Times staff writer Robert Farley reported Sunday, the Hammers may lose their East Lake home because they failed to pay about $450 in monthly fees to the Eagle Trace at Boot Ranch Homeowners Association.

In fact, their home already has been sold at auction _ at a price well below its estimated market value _ and the Hammers still have a roof over their heads only because they have asked for court intervention.

In Florida, unlike some other states, homeowners associations have the power to take someone's home if they don't pay their association dues. It is not uncommon for it to happen, and that's something that state legislators ought to look at.

But in the Hammers' case, the loss is compounded by the way the situation was handled and some extenuating circumstances that never were considered.

The Eagle Trace association, made up of neighborhood residents, never communicated with the Hammers in person to explain the importance of paying dues or to find out why the dues were not being paid. Instead, they used official notices sent through the mail via their attorney. Mighty neighborly of them.

Had they been willing to knock on the Hammers' door, they might have learned that the couple living there was struggling to survive, and without much of a local support system. Mrs. Hammer has colon cancer and was unable to work for most of last year. Her husband, a long-haul truck driver, had to leave his wife alone and in charge of the couple's affairs for long periods while she was in the grip of illness. The family is not well-known in the neighborhood.

Mrs. Hammer admits that she fell behind on the bills and received foreclosure notices, but she thought the notices were from her mortgage company. When she brought her mortgage payments up to date, she assumed the foreclosure issue was settled and that future notices were just a fluke. She says she didn't know that a homeowners association could foreclose on your home if you didn't pay your dues. That information was communicated in the legalese of the deed covenants the Hammers received when they bought their home.

It isn't hard to sympathize with the Hammers. Like most Americans today, they are inundated by a blizzard of mail and other kinds of paperwork. It takes effort and concentration to read, understand and organize it all. Add the complications of sickness, stress from financial problems, and misunderstanding, and it is easy to see how the Hammers might have dropped the ball. Can anyone believe that they would have deliberately stonewalled the association over $450 worth of association dues and put their home, with an estimated market value of $205,000, at risk?

What does the homeowners association say? That the Hammers got plenty of notices. "They didn't follow the proper procedures," said association attorney Michael Brudny.

Homeowners associations need some kind of enforcement tool they can use to pressure homeowners to pay their dues, which cover costs that all members of a community are supposed to share. But failure to "follow proper procedures" alone should not be enough be initiate use of foreclosure power.

We suggest that the Eagle Trace association, as well as all other homeowners associations that have the power to foreclose, adopt the following as "proper procedures" and follow them:

Have an association board member visit new residents to offer a friendly hello and an explanation of the importance of paying dues.

If the dues aren't forthcoming, visit the residents to find out whether there is a problem. And if there is, offer the association's help.

That's what community is all about.