PALM HARBOR — When Deborah Berger and her husband, Barry, decided to downsize in 2007, they bought a condominium in Lansbrook Village that looks out on a nature preserve.
"It's so beautiful,'' Berger said. "You have the birds chirping, you see the seasons changing and the air is so clear and pristine.''
Now in their 70s, the couple assumed that the condo would be their final home. But they and other owners — many of them seniors, some of them veterans — could be forced to sell because a billion-dollar company wants to convert all 774 Lansbrook units into lucrative rentals.
That might not seem fair. Under Florida law, it's perfectly legal.
Lansbrook in north Pinellas County is among the hundreds of Florida condo communities whose residents have faced the loss of their homes to big-time apartment investors. Owners in some communities, like Bay Vista in St. Petersburg, have ceded the fight, sold and moved on. Others, like those in Tampa's Grand Oasis, are battling to save their homes. All are up against a 2007 Florida statute that became the proverbial law of unintended consequences.
Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and major hurricanes in 2004-5 left many condo communities in dire shape. In 2007, state legislators amended condo laws so that the approval of just 80 percent of unit owners — not 100 percent, as before — was needed to make repairs or terminate a condominium association.
Unlike other parts of Florida, the Tampa Bay area and its many condo communities escaped the hurricanes largely unscathed. But the 2008 housing crash caused thousands of condo owners to default on their mortgages. Canny investors began snapping up units at bargain prices, knowing that once they owned 80 percent they'd be in a position to convert the complex to rentals and force the remaining owners to sell.
Tallahassee attorney Peter Dunbar, an expert on condo law and a former member of the Florida House of Representatives, said the intent of the 2007 law was to ensure that hurricane-damaged condos didn't become derelict eyesores.
"Then (investors) came along with the strict economic motive — 'I can make it worth more to my pocketbook' — and that has disrupted what the original concept was,'' Dunbar said. "It's unfortunate.''
Darron Kattan, managing director of Tampa's Franklin Street brokerage, estimated that there still are 30 or so condominiums in the Tampa Bay area that could be ripe for conversion because so-called "bulk owners'' own at least 50 percent of the units.
"The two factors that would drive investors to buy bulk opportunities are location and do they think they can get to 80 percent owned at some point,'' Kattan said.
Lansbrook meets both criteria.
Just off busy East Lake Road, Lansbrook is a well-maintained community of low-rise buildings surrounded by lakes and green space. It was developed as an apartment complex in the early 2000s but converted to condos as the real estate market soared and people were more eager to buy than rent.
With their kids almost grown, the Bergers sold their Safety Harbor house and put money from that and their retirement accounts into a three-bedroom, two-bath condo with a two-car garage. They loved the vaulted ceilings, the view out back, the access to three community swimming pools and the fact they could walk to Publix. They paid $249,900 in 2007.
"I said to my husband, 'it's kind of high,' but because of our financial situation Chase Bank was willing to deal with us,'' said Berger, a nurse.
Other buyers included Sylvia and Ed Cousins. The couple moved from Ohio, where he had directed Ohio State University's radiology department and she was a radiology technician. They used to come to Tampa Bay for bowl games and to see friends in the area.
"It was a beautiful place,'' she said of Lansbrook. "We thought we would spend our retirement years there and perhaps have a nice place to leave our family.''
In 2006, the couple bought a two-bedroom condo for $247,600. Like the Bergers, they felt the price was a little high "but we never thought we were going to get overheated and end up like this,'' she said.
Two years later, the market crashed. The value of Lansbrook condos plunged.
"My husband and I were going to ride it out,'' Deborah Berger said, "but there was a great disposal of units, short sales, a few foreclosures. A lot of people lost their homes (elsewhere) so they were coming here to rent, and people here were losing their homes and dumping their property. It was a crazy time.''
In 2009, Lansbrook's developer defaulted on its mortgage and the lender, Corus Bank, was taken over by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. A Connecticut investment firm bought some of the bank's assets, including Lansbrook's common areas and the 524 or so condos that had never sold. Those were turned into market-rate rentals.
In 2014, while Tampa Bay's housing market was still recovering, a real estate company purchased Lansbrook for $58.6 million. Owners like the Bergers and the Cousinses had become islands in a sea of renters.
By this time, the problems with Florida's 2007 condo law were apparent. People throughout the state complained that bulk owners were taking control of condo association boards and forcing independent owners to sell, often for far less than what they had paid.
In 2015, the Legislature amended the law to provide some protection for owners opposed to apartment conversion. The new law said that owners who bought from the original developer and had a homestead exception must receive as much as they paid. If they didn't qualify for that exemption, owners would receive "fair market'' value, though in most cases that was still far less than pre-crash amounts.
Regardless of the law, the Bergers and Cousinses thought they were safe from the forced sale of their units. The condo documents they originally signed said no changes could be made without the approval of 100 percent of the owners, meaning Lansbrook could not be converted to all-rentals unless everyone agreed. But Lansbrook's bulk owner, which controlled the condo association, amended the documents in 2015 to require only 80 percent approval.
Deborah Berger, Sylvia Cousins and several other independent owners filed a sworn statement in public records challenging the amendment. The association sued them, asking the court to confirm that the amendment was valid and legally binding.
The case has dragged on for four years. The owners say they have been bullied and harassed in attempts to get them to sell their units. They often heard from a woman working for the bulk owner who tried to push them into short sales.
"She would call people up and give them a baloney story — 'Why do you want to keep it, it's not worth anything, you're not going to gain anything, it's a dead animal,' '' Berger said. "Some people took the bait and sold at short sale and then things started heating up and we felt we had to get an attorney. The condo board was selling us down the river.''
Cousins, who like her husband is now in her 80s with health problems, attended a deposition where the association's attorney "was pretty rough.''
"She kept pushing paper at me and saying, 'Do you remember this, do you remember that?' " Cousins said. "I was only allowed to say yes or no. I think she was trying to rattle me and upset me. The whole idea is, give us your property.''
Another owner, music producer Nicole Tindall, said a short-sale company called her at least twice a week. Through mediation, she thought she would be offered at least as much as she paid for her small condo — $140,000 in 2006.
"That wasn't the case at all,'' she said. "It was a slap in the face.'' (She didn't want to discuss her situation further: The condo association is seeking sanctions against her for allegedly disclosing confidential information about the mediation.)
Two years ago, Lansbrook's assets were sold to the Carroll Organization, an Atlanta-based company that owns nearly 100 apartment communities worth $5.3 billion in seven states. Since 2018, Carroll has bought several more Lansbrook units, all for what the remaining owners view as low-ball prices:
A woman who paid $231,900 in 2005 received $87,500.
A man who paid $253,700 in 2005 received $120,000.
A man who paid $243,500 in 2006 received $128,000.
As of December, Carroll owned 664 (85 percent) units while independent owners had 110 units (14.5 percent). Under Florida law, which was amended again two years ago, Carroll could terminate the condo association if no more than 5 percent of owners object.
So far, Carroll has not prepared a termination plan, according to Eric Appleton, a Tampa lawyer who represents the company-controlled association.
Dunbar, the condo law expert, said the Bergers, the Cousinses and other independent owners might have an ace in the battle to save their homes.
He noted that the law now requires those seeking to terminate a condominium association to explain why the move would be good public policy. Terminating a condominium that burned down or was destroyed by a hurricane is clearly in the public interest. Terminating a well-maintained condominium like Lansbrook would be a harder argument to make. That provision is new enough, however, that Dunbar said he is not aware of any owners using it to block a conversion.
Sylvia Cousins said they will keep fighting.
"At our age, we could not start over again and buy another place,'' she said. "There is nothing that compares to what we have, and that's probably the No. 1 point — we bought this property until death do us part.''
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.