State's condo ombudsman starts work with few resources
By Marilyn Bowden
The appointment of a condominium ombudsman appears to be a step toward implementation of changes to state law made last year by the Legislature. But experts cite several remaining obstacles.
In December, Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Virgil Rizzo - a lawyer, retired doctor and condo owner - to the post to act as liaison among unit owners, boards of directors and association managers. But no provisions were made for funds or staffing Dr. Rizzo's office.
He said he fields about 300 complaints a week, "and the number grows every time somebody puts my name and address in print."
If the Legislature approves funds this year, "we will be able to better serve the condominium population and keep the executive and legislative branches of the government apprised of condominium problems and suggested solutions," he said.
Helio De La Torre, head of the community association practice group of law firm Siegfried Rivera Lerner De La Torre & Sobel, said it's unclear whether Dr. Rizzo is empowered to bring criminal actions.
An advisory council set up by the Legislature has begun to conduct public meetings, he said, and "I am hopeful that they will get more input from the industry before more changes are made because a lot of the proposals made last year were very controversial."
One change causing some controversy is a provision that limits compliance with changes in a condo association's leasing policy to unit owners who buy after an amendment is passed.
"For 20 years," Mr. De La Torre said, "the associations have been progressively developing tighter and tighter leasing restrictions. Now these amendments are almost useless, and we will probably see a change back to communities with greater numbers of renters."
Some proposals before the Legislature would elevate parking and policies concerning pets to vested rights.
Karen P. Kondell, a real estate attorney at Akerman Senterfitt, said the amendment grandfathering in rental rights reversed a Florida Supreme Court decision that upheld an association's right to change leasing restrictions.
"So the provisions on leasing need to be very definite from the beginning," she said, "because a developer would not be able to make them more restrictive at a later date."
"I really think we need to let changes that took place last year gel before we rush to add more," said Donna Berger, executive director of the Community Association Leadership Lobby, which represents 4,000 associations statewide. "Everything is in its infancy, and we are in a wait-and-see posture."
The panel would like an expansion of board rights in a catastrophe such as a hurricane, she said. "Can you shut down water and electricity?" Ms. Berger said. "What about residents who won't evacuate even under mandate? Post-disaster, what if residents are scattered everywhere? Do you still need a quorum to make emergency decisions?"
She said the group is lobbying to make sure an insurance bill "will help with affordable, available insurance. People are having second thoughts about retiring down here because of the cost of insurance."
Ms. Berger said the lobby will seek to extend the deadline to retrofit fire sprinklers in common areas from 2014 to 2020 because many people are still dealing with hurricane recovery.
"Of course, we will be looking for anything that creates too many burdens, significantly increases the cost of running the associations or impairs their rights to collect assessments and maintain essential community services," she said.
Changes made last year in laws governing homeowners associations have been effective, Mr. De La Torre said.
"Previously, enforcement actions and disputes involving homeowners associations would go to circuit court," he said. "But last year, the Legislature imposed pre-suit mediation requirements, and that has really slowed that process down to a grinding halt. Again, the requirement wasn't funded or staffed.
"Traditionally, homeowners associations were able to lien for fines up to $1,000 since it is not practical as a collection matter to sue for that little. The attorney's fees would outweigh the cost of the fines. Now they can't lien and foreclose, so in effect, imposing fines is useless."
Details: Dr. Rizzo can be reached at (850) 922-7671 or email@example.com.