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Nicole-Kurtz-2021-200x300The firm’s latest Miami Herald “Real Estate Counselor” column authored by Nicole R. Kurtz appears in today’s Neighbors section and is titled “Federal and State Reforms Necessary to Address Florida’s Residential Insurance Woes.”  It focuses on the precarious state of Florida’s home insurance market, which will be the subject of a special session by the state legislature this week.  Nicole’s article reads:

. . . An article by the Miami Herald’s Ben Conarck recently chronicled how the horrific Champlain Towers collapse “has further inflamed an exodus of insurers no longer willing to underwrite policies in an increasingly risky Florida condo marketplace.” It noted that condominium associations are being forced to resort to the surplus market for less coverage at costlier rates.

“Condo associations are having a hard time getting their pre-Surfside policies renewed, forced instead to sift through estimates for less protective plans that cost twice as much, or higher. Those lucky enough to renew their policies are doing so at 30% to 50% premium increases,” according to Conarck’s expert sources.

Herald-clip-for-blog-5-22-22-1-100x300They also indicate “[s]piraling costs and tighter restrictions in both the insurance and lending industries have led to a new fear that some particularly troubled condo buildings will be uninsurable. Companies are going to be demanding inspection and financial records — and even meeting minutes — to determine how much risk is in any given building.”

Indeed, some analysts are predicting that the state’s residential insurance market is nearing a total collapse. They point to the six property and casualty companies that offered homeowners insurance in the state but have liquidated since 2017, with two more that are in the liquidation process this year.

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A recent case from Leesburg, Florida, illustrates why community associations should avoid issuing and using debit cards in the name of the association.

According to a recent report by Leesburg News (www.Leesburg-News.com), John Joseph O’Connor was arrested and stands accused of stealing nearly $3,000 from the Coachwood Colony HOA by making multiple ATM withdrawals with the association’s debit card shortly after he resigned as president. The transactions were discovered by the association’s new treasurer, who reviewed the bank statements after joining its board of directors and discovered nine unauthorized ATM withdrawals totaling $2,972.

The astute treasurer contacted the bank and was told that the debit card used for all the transactions was the one issued to O’Connor.

cwood-300x161The Lake County Sheriff’s Office was notified, and a deputy questioned O’Connor who said he lost his wallet with the HOA’s debit card and had reported it to the bank. However, further investigation revealed that he had never reported the card missing, and ATM surveillance video proved to be incriminating. He was arrested and released on a $7,000 bond, and is scheduled to appear in Lake County Court on May 31.

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Michael-Hyman-srhl-lawThe firm’s latest Miami Herald “Real Estate Counselor” column authored by Michael L. Hyman appears in today’s Neighbors section and is titled “What Are Some Common Traits of Excellent Community Association Boards of Directors.”  The article discusses how Michael realized from the start of his work with associations more than 50 years ago that the decisions of these boards, which are of momentous significance for the administrative and financial well-being of their communities, are sometimes influenced by the petty whims and infighting of some of their directors. His article reads:

. . . Boards of directors often fall into one of three categories:

The Autocrat: These associations are ruled by a president who has typically served in the position for many years. Everything the president wants, they get; everything they are against has no shot. The other board members are happy to follow along and not rock the boat.

Herald-clip-for-blog-5-8-22-103x300The Fence Sitters: These boards’ votes are almost always split decisions with a swing-vote in the middle, and they typically deliberate for a very long time before making any decisions. Sometimes for issues involving pressing matters, they may even kick the can down the road rather than making a difficult decision.

The Varsity Team: These boards of directors are typically comprised of experienced board members who, for the most part, see eye to eye on many important issues and decisions. They listen to experts, discuss and weigh their options together with all the interested unit owners at the board meetings, and always make decisions that are in the best interests of their communities.

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Gary-Mars-2021-2-200x300The firm’s Gary M. Mars was the first South Florida community association attorney to weigh in on the recently proposed SAFER in Condos Act in a major local media outlet with his article in today’s op-ed page of the Miami Herald.  The article, which is titled “After Surfside, Federal Condo-Safety Legislation Deserves Bi-Partisan Support,” focuses on the SAFER in Condos Act that was recently introduced in the U.S. Congress by Florida representatives.  It notes that questions regarding condominium safety have been in the spotlight since the horrific Champlain Towers tragedy that claimed 98 lives, and changes failed to pass in the state legislature but have been enacted at the federal level from lenders and also at the local level from counties and municipalities.  Gary’s article reads:

. . . Part of the reason the state legislature could not agree on a set of reforms was because the new funding requirements for structural repairs would have been too much for the unit owners of many condominium communities to bear. Plus, financing options for both condominium associations and their unit owners for such extremely costly property restorations were getting worse by the day, as interest rates have been on the rise and are predicted to continue climbing.

Herald-clip-for-blog-5-3-22-462x1024For a problem of this magnitude and national scope, only the federal government has the capability and resources to truly make an impact.  Its first effort at addressing it was proposed on April 18 by U.S. Reps. Charlie Crist (D-St. Petersburg) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Broward, Miami-Dade) in the form of the Securing Access to Finance Exterior Repairs (SAFER) in Condos Act of 2022.  The legislation would allow condominium owners to finance critical building repairs with loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Unit owners would be able to combine a special assessment from their association for structural repairs with their existing mortgage debt into a new, 30-year loan insured under the FHA home rehabilitation program.

For those who do not have a mortgage or would prefer to leave it as is and continue to pay it off, the legislation also grants owners access to the FHA Property Improvement Program to finance such an assessment over a 20-year term.

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Gary-Mars-2021-2-200x300The firm’s latest Miami Herald “Real Estate Counselor” column authored by Gary M. Mars featured in today’s Neighbors section is titled “Possible $8M Fraud Against Florida Community Associations is a Wake-Up Call.”  The article, which is the second of two parts, is on a developing case from Southwest Florida that appears to be one of the largest incidents of fraud and embezzlement ever inflicted on community associations in the state.  It reads:

. . . An excellent Naples Daily News/The News-Press investigation has found that the associations are reporting more than $8 million has been taken from their accounts. Association directors have told the journalists that APMS took sole control of their Wells Fargo Bank accounts by telling them to sign new signature cards but then never submitting them to the bank.

The ordeal that these communities are now undergoing is horrific, and many of us who provide essential services for associations in Florida have been impacted by this case. We shake our heads in disgust at the brazen actions that appear to have taken place, while also hoping that we have successfully helped every association we work with to avoid the potential for any such malfeasance.

Herald-clip-for-blog-4-24-22-297x300The association board members and bankers that appear to have been hoodwinked in this case had in all likelihood grown to trust APMS and its owners wholeheartedly. That would likely explain how the state-licensed property management company allegedly succeeded in securing, submitting and executing all of the necessary documentation in order to remove the community associations and their directors from their own bank accounts. Apparently, the necessary red flags did not go up, resulting in the success of the scheme.

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Florida’s legislature has received very poor marks for its failure to pass any condominium-safety reforms after the horrific Champlain Towers tragedy.  Many condominium residents and community association attorneys expected the state’s lawmakers would strike a deal on a bill to revamp Florida’s existing condo regulations by requiring periodic inspections of buildings.

Pundits and newspaper columnists are lamenting the fact that the two chambers ultimately could not agree on whether to require condominium associations to maintain financial reserves for major structural maintenance and repairs.  Given the horrific tragedy that claimed 98 lives, not-to-mention the significant number of aging buildings across the state with potential structural deficiencies, it is no surprise that there has been an outcry after the legislature failed to act.

Taking into consideration that this year’s legislative session began just over six months after the collapse, the legislature’s inability to establish mandatory safety reforms and require specific funding conditions for condominiums throughout the state was actually not very surprising.  Florida-legislature2-300x169The issues of high-rise structural inspections, condominium association financial reserves, and mandatory fire sprinklers have flummoxed lawmakers in Florida and other states for decades.

Florida’s legislators should now take the time to work through the difficult details of condominium high-rise safety reforms during the remainder of the year and the pre-session legislative meetings for the 2023 session.  There may not be a one-size-fits-all solution for condominium buildings of varying heights and stages in their lifespan.

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Gary-Mars-2021-2-200x300The firm’s latest Miami Herald “Real Estate Counselor” column authored by Gary M. Mars appears in today’s “Neighbors” section under the headline “Southwest Florida Community Associations Appear to Fall Victim to Massive Fraud.”  The article focuses on what appears to be one of the largest cases of fraud and embezzlement ever committed against Florida community associations that is now unfolding in Southwest Florida.  Gary’s article reads:

. . . Association directors, and also to some extent the property managers they retain, have control over communities’ purse strings, and for some enclaves we are talking about multiple millions of dollars per year. Such amounts under the control of so few have made condominiums and HOAs a favorite target of crooks and fraudsters for generations. Swindlers have embezzled millions of dollars from communities, before getting caught and facing the music in the vast majority of cases.

An excellent Naples Daily News/The News-Press investigation that remains ongoing appears to reveal sadly yet another example of the type of rampant fraud that can be inflicted on communities.

Herald-clip-for-blog-4-10-22-349x1024The case stems from an initial lawsuit filed by the Compass Point South at Windstar condominium association in Naples last April against American Property Management Services, owner Orlando Miserandino Ortiz, and his wife and co-owner Lina Munoz Posada. It alleges that the association and its board members lost access to their Wells Fargo Bank accounts because APMS did not add their names to the accounts, effectively locking them out.

The case was expanded in January with a new lawsuit listing 24 additional plaintiffs and new allegations, including that there is good cause to believe that the owners have left the U.S. and have been residing in Colombia for more than a year. Both complaints allege Miserandino placed funds in accounts that only he could access, preventing the associations from keeping tabs on or accessing their money. According to interviews by the journalists with the association directors, APMS took sole control of their accounts by telling them to sign signature cards but then never submitting them to the bank.

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Gary-Mars-2021-2-200x300The firm’s latest Miami Herald “Real Estate Counselor” column authored by Gary M. Mars appears in today’s Neighbors section and is titled “What’s Next for Condo-Safety Reforms After Legislature Fails to Act?”.  The article focuses on the very poor marks that the state legislature has received in newspaper editorials from the Herald and across the state for its failure to pass any condominium-safety reforms after the horrific Champlain Towers tragedy.  It notes the editorials lament that the two chambers ultimately could not reach bicameral agreement on whether to require condominium associations to maintain financial reserves for major structural maintenance and repairs, and they are certainly correct to bemoan the legislative shortfall.  Gary’s article continues:

. . . However, from the point of view of someone who has kept a finger on the pulse of the state’s condominium laws for the past 30 years, the failure of the legislators to pass reforms during the session that began just over six months after the collapse was not surprising. Lawmakers in Florida as well as other states have been grappling with the issues of high-rise structural inspections and condominium association financial reserves for decades, not-to-mention fire sprinkler and suppression systems that can be very difficult and expensive to retrofit into older buildings.

It was perhaps overly auspicious of lawmakers to propose sweeping reforms without having first ironed out many of the important aspects of the proposals in the pre-session legislative meetings. They put forth many of the recommendations from task forces from engineering/construction trade groups and The Florida Bar, but they ultimately could not agree on the details of inspection dates and reserve funding levels.

Miami-Herald-3-27-22-print-page-342x1024Even with no changes to the state’s laws, significant condo-safety reforms are being implemented by lenders after major changes in underwriting requirements from government-sponsored Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In fact, many associations have already been struggling to comply with the new requirement from these quasi government agencies for lenders to have the condominium associations for mortgage applicants complete an eight-page form. For towers in their teen years that have never conducted any kind of major engineering inspections, association directors are completely unequipped to attest to their buildings’ current structural integrity in these questionnaires, and the potential legal liabilities would preclude them from making such representations.

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For homeowners’ associations governing communities of single-family homes, one of the most difficult balancing acts to uphold is that of enforcement actions required against noncompliant homeowners over the physical state of their property. In the minds of many Americans, community associations have a negative perception and stigma for overzealous rules enforcement, but yet they cannot allow individual owners to flout important policies that help to maintain their communities’ property values.

After unsuccessful attempts to persuade an intractable owner to comply with the language provided in an association’s governing documents, the time may come to file a lawsuit against the violating member. While such action should not be taken lightly due to the potential costs and uncertainties of litigation, such lawsuits may be the only recourse left to associations facing obstinate owners who refuse to comply.

bbathandt-300x200Such appears to be the case with a recent lawsuit filed by the Boca Raton Bath & Tennis Club HOA against homeowner Lynn Min for alleged violations of several provisions found within the community’s governing documents. The suit, which was covered recently by www.BocaNewsNow.com, states:

“Owner is in violation of the provisions cited [in the governing documents] by virtue of their Property being in a state of disrepair, including a lack of maintenance to the home’s structure and roof, the exterior of the Property needs to be painted, the sod needs to be replaced, and the irrigation system is defective and needs to be repaired.”

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Gary-Mars-2021-2-200x300An article featuring insights from firm shareholder Gary M. Mars appears on the front page of today’s Sun Sentinel.  The article, which is headlined “Failed Condo Safety Bill Leaves Residents, Buyers in Limbo,” focuses on what is in store for condominium safety reforms from lenders and insurers after the measures before the Florida Legislature failed to pass during the 2022 session that ended last week.  The article reads:

. . . Some condo lawyers argue that it was too ambitious to expect that a sweeping safety bill could be passed in a short three-month legislative session.

“I know it was very, very ambitious legislation,” said Gary Mars, a condo lawyer at Siegfried Rivera in Coral Gables.  “It would have taken a lot of effort to get it through all of the machinations developing legislation of this type.”

He noted that not every building is in dire structural straits, or even old enough to be required to follow inspection rules such as the ones in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, which mandate deep-dive studies after 40 years.

Sun-Sentinel-3-21-22-print-page-1-1-100x300“I represent a lot of associations in buildings in their teenaged years,” he said.

“They’re getting sophisticated reports” from their engineers about deferred maintenance issues such as waterproofing, balcony restorations and painting, Mars said.  But the reports don’t cover structural issues.

“They may have wonderful reports, but those reports don’t give the association the ability to check the box” about the building’s overall condition, he said. “There’s not a perfect solution to this problem.”. . .

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