There seems to be a common misunderstanding by the directors of many community associations in Florida as to their rights to approve and screen individuals seeking to purchase or rent homes within their communities. An overwhelming number of board members seem to think that their associations have unfettered rights to interview, screen and either accept or reject prospective owners or tenants who are interested in purchasing or renting units within their community. Often times, these directors are disappointed to learn that Florida law and their association’s governing documents are not as restrictive as they would like.
Unreasonable restraints on the alienation of property are disfavored by Florida courts. In other words, previous legal cases addressing the restrictions on a person’s ability to sell or transfer real property have upheld the restrictions only to the extent that they are considered reasonable. Therefore, to ascertain what approval rights the association may have regarding a prospective tenant or purchaser, the association should begin by reviewing its own governing documents. If the community’s declaration of covenants or declaration of condominium does not contain a provision authorizing the association to reject potential purchasers or tenants, the board should refrain from disapproving any tenant or purchaser except in the event of exigent circumstances (the applicability of which should first be analyzed and determined by association counsel).
However, an association’s board is not necessarily free to approve or disapprove prospective purchasers and tenants merely because the authority to do so appears in the association’s governing documents. As I indicated, the requirement to obtain an association’s approval prior to selling or leasing a home or unit is deemed to be a restraint on the alienation of such real property, and as such, that restraint may only be imposed to the extent that it is reasonable. An arbitrary disapproval of a tenant or purchaser is likely to be unenforceable. One measure that the courts have determined to be reasonable when disapproving a potential sale of a home or unit is the “right of first refusal,” which would require an association or its designated representative to step in and consummate the sale or lease of the potential purchaser or tenant who is disapproved. This protective measure is deemed to enable the association to exercise some level of control as to the individuals that may reside in a community without unreasonably limiting the owner’s right to sell or lease the property.
Other grounds that might be argued to be reasonable in connection with the disapproval of an applicant seeking to reside in a community may include the following: (1) the applicant has been convicted by a court of a felony involving violence to persons or property, or a felony demonstrating dishonesty or moral turpitude, and has not had their civil rights restored; (2) the application for approval, on its face, or the conduct of the applicant, indicates an intent to act in a manner inconsistent with the association’s governing documents; (3) the applicant has a history of disruptive behavior or disregard for the rights and property of others as evidenced by his conduct in other residences, social organizations or associations; and (4) the applicant has failed to provide the information required to process the application in a timely manner, or has materially misrepresented any fact or information provided in the application or screening process. In no event, however, may an association disapprove a proposed purchaser or lessee on the basis of race, gender, religion, national origin, or physical or mental handicap.
This article provides a basic overview of the limitations affecting associations with regard to the ability to approve or disapprove individuals seeking to purchase or lease within the community. Given the sensitive nature of those rights – and the potential for liability should the association overstep its rights – we caution that every association consult with its legal counsel to obtain a clear understanding as to its right to approve or disapprove potential purchasers and tenants.