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RobertoBlanch_8016-200x300Firm shareholder Roberto C. Blanch was quoted extensively in an article today by The Real Deal South Florida on the looming financial strains for community associations due to the spike in unemployment caused by the COVID-19 economic standstill.  The article, which is titled “South Florida HOAs and Condo Associations Prepare for a Drop in Collections,” discusses the options that associations are considering in response to the expected delinquencies.  It reads:

. . . Attempting foreclosure is also an expensive process that some associations will want to avoid, and the temporary freeze on foreclosures and evictions until mid-May is expected to create a backlog of cases.

Plus, “the end game – foreclosure – may not necessarily be in the best interest of the condo [association],” said Siegfried Rivera attorney Roberto Blanch.

A number of associations he represents have been proactive about reducing operating expenses wherever possible. Blanch said associations are “anticipating they are going to have difficulty collecting payments from owners who have lost their jobs, who have been furloughed, or been laid off.”

TRDlogo-300x80Some are offering payment plans or waiving late fees to owners who have requested that, similar to what happened in 2008 and 2009. But the true impact has yet to be seen, he said. Payment plans could consist of lowering the portion of fees an owner has to pay for the first three months, and then spreading the rest out over the remaining set period of time.

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Protecting the residents and management staff should be a priority for condominium association board members and property managers during the novel coronavirus outbreak. Most management companies have already implemented their business continuity plan to ensure there are no disruptions in services provided by associations and management.  While it is important for management to be prepared to deal with the possible impact of this pandemic, it is also imperative that board members stay involved and consider having a preparedness plan in place for the association at large.

The first step a board of directors should take — and one that is often overlooked — is to designate an individual to stay informed on governmental updates by consulting reliable resources and signing up to receive alerts.  Government and health department websites dedicated to providing COVID-19 updates, such as the Centers for Disease Control website, are typically the most reliable sources of information.  In this ever-changing environment, guidelines and orders issued by local and state governments are continually updated, and it is important to ensure that the information which is being relied upon for vital decisions is the latest and most accurate available.

The next order of business is to have a clear communications plan in place.  Effective communication allows both residents and management staff to stay informed about coronavirus updates, safety practices, amenity closures, and possible infections in the building.  Boards should ensure that rosters are updated with the most current contact information for residents and building staff. They should also consider contracting with a third-party platform that enables secure communication between owners and management via email, texts or an app, should these capabilities not already be in use.

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The coronavirus pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty for community associations throughout Florida, especially concerning meetings and amenity use.  Management professionals and board members are left struggling between protecting their residents by taking measures to limit the spread of the virus and continuing to conduct business as usual.

We share your concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak and the impact that it may have on our community. We urge that everyone continues to turn to the CDC and other qualified health professionals as their primary source of information and guidance. As we navigate these unchartered waters together, we ask that our clients stay calm and take rational courses of action to safeguard their communities and addressing situations properly while protecting their association from a potential claim.

As the CDC continues to encourage “social distancing,” many associations are left wondering whether or not they should be moving forward with duly scheduled meetings. Board members and property managers should evaluate the importance of the action items being discussed or voted upon before making any determinations on cancellations. Boards that are concerned about having in-person meetings should consider holding virtual meetings in conjunction with or in place of in-person gatherings.

Social gatherings in clubhouses and recreational facilities are also a cause of concern. We discourage clients from limiting the number of guests that residents can invite or trying to impose intrusive policies such as checking temperatures prior to allowing entry to the community. When in doubt, contact association counsel for a legal opinion.

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Our firm’s founder and managing partner, Steven M. Siegfried was awarded the 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award by the Construction Law Committee of The Florida Bar.  The award, which he received at the group’s annual awards reception in Orlando on Friday, March 6 (see photo below), recognizes one Florida construction law practitioner per year for their lifetime of exemplary dedication and mentoring, and their commitment to maintaining the very highest level of professional reputation and integrity.

Lifetime-Achievement-Award-2020-60-1024x681Steven has focused on construction law in Florida since 1976.  He has served as an adjunct professor of construction law at the University of Miami since 1984, and he has also conducted many seminars and presentations for construction law practitioners throughout Florida during his entire career.  He is board certified by The Florida Bar as both a civil trial and construction law, having earned both designations in their year of inception from the state’s bar association.  Steven is also a founding Fellow of the American College of Construction Lawyers, and he is the author of Florida Construction Law and The Florida Construction Lien Law, An Overview.  He earned his undergraduate degree from Brooklyn College in 1971 and his law degree from American University, Washington College of Law in 1974.

All of the attorneys and professionals at our firm are very proud of the impact that our founder has had in teaching a generation of attorneys about the intricacies of construction law at the University of Miami while helping to build one of the state’s most respected practices in the field.  We congratulate Steven and salute him for receiving this prestigious recognition from his peers in The Florida Bar’s Construction Law Committee.

This year’s legislative session is well underway, and there are a handful of bills that community associations should keep an eye on. Our firm is tracking the following bills that may have an impact on community associations, if passed:

HB 209 /SB 1084: Emotional Support Animals

Similar to federal law, Florida law requires reasonable accommodations for those individuals with service animals, but fails to provide guidelines for other assistance animals, such as emotional support animals (ESA).  This bill amends Florida’s Fair Housing Act by prohibiting discrimination in housing against individuals with a disability or a disability-related need who require an ESA. The bill also prohibits housing providers from charging additional fees pertaining to an ESA. The bill specifies that the individual requiring the ESA is liable for any damages to the premises or to another person resulting from the ESA. This bill also allows a housing provider to request supporting information regarding the individual’s disability or disability-related need for the ESA, and creates a new cause for disciplinary action against a health care practitioner’s license for providing supporting documentation for an ESA to those whom they haven’t treated. Finally, the bill creates criminal liability for providing false or fraudulent documentation in support of an accommodation request for an ESA. If passed, this bill will be effective July 1, 2020.

Flalegislature-300x169HB 623 / SB 1154: Community Associations

This legislation proposes a vast amount of modifications to Chapters 718, 719 and 720, Florida Statutes. In part, the bill allows for the removal of outdated language in community association governing documents, confirms when board member term limits are considered to begin to run, and clarifies that owners need not provide a reason for inspecting association official records. If passed, this bill will be effective July 1, 2020.

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On March 2, 2020, York Condominium Corporation of Ontario, Canada, advised its residents that one of its security guards, who had traveled overseas, had been diagnosed with COVID-19.  For the residents of the community involved in this case and all those who reside or work in communities with associations, chatting and interacting with one’s fellow neighbors and association staff can be one of the greatest joys of condominium or community living.  However, being in proximity with others is the most typical pathway to contagion when infectious diseases such as the deadly COVID-19 coronavirus are circulating.  In response to the expected rise in COVID-19 cases, now is the time for associations to dust off and review their emergency plans and implement some important precautions.

To protect against catching and spreading COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.  If soap and water are unavailable, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.  It is also recommended to avoid close contact with people who are sick, and stay home when you are sick.

Community associations should take a proactive approach toward preparing for the potential spread of COVID-19.  Associations should consider installing and using hand sanitizer dispensers in high traffic areas, including the lobby, management office, meeting rooms, social rooms, dining halls, package rooms, fitness center and elevator vestibules.  They should also focus on upgraded cleaning measures and protocols to help ensure that high-touch surfaces, including lobby reception desks, elevator buttons, handrails and door handles, are being cleaned and sanitized on a regular and frequent basis.  Common-area restrooms should be cleaned and inspected with frequency, and special attention should be given to refilling all essentials such as soap and towel dispensers.

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Changes in public perceptions and levels of awareness of the issues surrounding emotional support animals have created a mandate for new state laws and federal policies.  Earlier this year I wrote in this column about new measures being considered by the Florida Legislature as well as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.  HUD has now released its official guidance for assistance animal requests and the responses to such requests by housing providers under the Fair Housing Act.

The federal housing agency reported that complaints concerning denials of reasonable accommodations for assistance animals have been growing significantly, and they now represent one of the most common types of FHA complaints that HUD receives.

The new guidance is intended to serve as a tool for housing providers and those with disabilities.  It covers many of the best practices for providers addressing requests for reasonable accommodations for assistance animals.

esupdog-300x234The guidance should help to make it easier for housing providers and individuals requesting an accommodation to gain a good understanding of the applicable laws.  For requests for emotional support animals in which the underlying disability may not be readily observable, HUD states that housing providers may request information regarding both the disability and the disability-related need for the animal, but they are not entitled to know an individual’s diagnosis.

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As documented in a recent report in the Miami Herald, the property manager of two Sunny Isles Beach condominium towers has been arrested for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the associations for the properties.

Property manager Georgina Pineda (pictured below) was booked into a Miami-Dade County jail recently, and apparently it wasn’t her first brush with the law involving association theft and fraud.  This time, court documents allege she stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Eden Roc Condos, which she had managed since 2017.  The documents indicate that much of the money went to feed her gambling habit at the Miccosukee casino.

GPineda-300x169According to Sunny Isles police, Pineda had access to the condo association’s debit card. She was supposed to use it only for small expenditures for the community, but when the association board demanded a full audit she “continually made excuses as to why she was not providing accounting reports.”

The arrest report also states that when Pineda finally provided a spreadsheet, it was missing numerous transactions — including withdrawals at the Miccosukee casino in West Miami-Dade.  In addition, she was regularly transferring association funds into her own independent business account.

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If you live in a condominium, there is a reasonable chance that, at some point, you will experience one of the most frustrating events for homeowners:   water intrusion caused by plumbing problems and related losses.  The big difference between those who reside in a shared community, such as a condominium building, and those who reside in a single-family home is the added complication for condominium dwellers of determining responsibility and liability for any water damage and resulting remediation work.

In condominiums, the association is generally responsible for losses emanating from the property’s common elements.  Complications for assigning responsibility, however, typically arise from losses that may originate from inside an owner’s dwelling unit, and may cause damage to adjacent or below units, as well as to the common elements.

Such cases are often resolved through a negotiation between insurance carriers for unit owners and those for the association’s property, assuming the owners have adequate coverage. water-300x225 Insurers tend to find the most common sources of water loss from inside a dwelling unit to be sinks, showers, toilets, faucets, drains, supply lines, valves and pipes.  In addition, problems with appliances, such as dishwashers and refrigerators, are also likely culprits.

For shared walls and plumbing lines, insurers for multiple unit owners may be involved.  In those cases, carriers often work together to inspect the affected property, determine the cause of the water loss and assign responsibility where it lies.

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Readers of this blog may recall my recent article about a resident of the Ibis Golf and Country Club community in Palm Beach County who was creating an incredibly dangerous and destructive situation by feeding extraordinary amounts of food to vultures, alligators and other wildlife behind her home.  On Wednesday, Jan. 15, the homeowner agreed to pay $53,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by her community’s association.

In addition to the payment for the association’s fees and fines that is due by Feb. 14, Irma Acosta Arya was also permanently enjoined from any further feedings, meaning the court has issued an injunction against her prohibiting any future feedings under severe criminal and civil penalties.

According to a follow-up report on the case in the Palm Beach Post, the payment and injunction represent a great relief to the residents of the gated golf community, which borders a nature preserve in western Palm Beach County.

The suit alleged that Acosta Arya’s constant feedings of large quantities of food since 2016 attracted highly destructive flocks of vultures, which would vomit and defecate all over the community and neighboring properties (see video below from WPBF Channel 25 News), along with raccoons, alligators and a bobcat.  The judge initially issued a temporary injunction to prevent any further feedings, and he found Acosta Arya in contempt of court in December for violating the injunction after the association presented photos allegedly showing her feeding animals behind her house in recent months.

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